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Minneapolis school board meeting shut down over racist curriculum

By staff |
October 3, 2015
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Protest at Minneapolis school board meeting against racist curriculum.
Protest at Minneapolis school board meeting against racist curriculum. (Fight Back! News / Staff)
Racist Reading Horizons book used by Minneapolis schools.
Racist Reading Horizons book used by Minneapolis schools.

Minneapolis, MN - On the night of Sept. 29, dozens of educators, students, parents and community members disrupted the Minneapolis Board of Education. Tensions between the community and the board have been rising over the recent adoption of a new $1.2 million district-wide racist reading curriculum for elementary age students, sold by the Utah-based company Reading Horizons.

Anticipating protest, the board opened the meeting with an attempt to prevent public comment during the special “business only” meeting and limiting brief public comments only to an upcoming tax levy. Protesters entered shortly after the meeting opened, chanting “Whose tax dollars? Our tax dollars!” The protesters’ arrival was met by the moans and obvious discomfort of the small audience and board members, some of whom tried to shout down protesters and demand they leave. Within minutes the frustrated members of the Board of Education postponed the meeting.

Upon the departure of the Board of Education members, protesters seized the abandoned board room. Group members began airing their concerns and comments to several board members who remained listening in silence. One concerned parent from North Minneapolis, a historically Black community in the city, explained that she hoped to “see our children represented in what happens in their schools.” A retired teacher offered encouragement when he reminded protesters, “If we stand up, things can change.” Another employee and parent added that this is only “the most recent racist curriculum” to enter schools. A community member and parent questioned the values of the religious based, for profit Reading Horizons, calling on the board to “divest from corporate curriculum.” A student from Southwest High School added that he believed the curriculum was a “form of abuse.”

The Board of Education made two attempts to re-enter and reconvene their meeting from behind their ornamental podiums. Both of these efforts resulted in a shouting match. Each time the standoff resulted with protesters claiming success as the Board of Education was denied its efforts to carry on with business as usual and forced to withdraw. In the midst of each the demands of the protesters were read loudly for all to hear: “End all relationship with Reading Horizons; no racist curriculum!” followed by a demand for a public apology from interim Superintendent Michael Goar and that he, or those responsible, lose their jobs.

More demands were circulated that called upon the district to circumvent future curriculum through community review prior to purchase or implementation; to have a moratorium on using scripted curriculum and test-based initiatives; and to review and replace marginalizing curriculum and tests with richly diverse and culturally relevant curriculum and literature on the Northside this year, in partnership with protesters.

After the Board of Education vacated its chambers for the final time, in the wake of an attempt to turn the microphone volume so high that their voices became distorted and muddled feedback from the speakers, only protesters were left. A second-grade student from a nearby elementary school boasted that her teacher was amongst those standing up and fighting back against the “bad books.”

As the school year began in August with trainings for the new curriculum at least one concerned teacher was alarmed by the racist and sexist content of the books and began raising concerns to all those who would listen. They discovered that the curriculum, came at a $1.2 million cost and was produced by a company whose only research supporting its success came from its own self-promotion and advertisement. While other states and cities had already implemented the curriculum, organizers in Minneapolis stood up and said no to Reading Horizons in Minneapolis public schools. Soon after local and eventually national media began debating the content. Since then many more across Minneapolis have joined in the growing effort to demand the district rescind the curriculum. While the Board of Education has said parents cannot opt out, more parents are sending in paperwork to attempt to do so daily.

The Reading Horizons reading curriculum was designed for students between kindergarten and third grade and is intended to help Minneapolis align with the national Common Core State Standards that are intended to prepare every student to read by third grade. More specifically, such efforts are explicitly aimed at narrowing the ‘achievement gap’ between white students and/or middle class students and their peers of color and/or those peers in poverty. Minnesota has, for over a decade, consistently had among the worst achievement gaps in the U.S. This achievement gap in education reflects a far greater gap in American society than one just seen in schools though. The gaps prevailing in education actually reflect the much greater inequalities plaguing the U.S. at large.

In the year since the national uprisings around the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson that prompted the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Minnesota has been exposed as having the greatest racial inequalities in the U.S. It has seen deteriorating education as well as employment, wage, housing and health care inequalities that are the worst in the U.S. and have only been getting worse.

In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul Black residents live below the poverty line at a level three times greater than their white counterparts. The median income for black Minnesotans in fact decreased $4000 in the past year to a median household income of $21,026. Home ownership is only at 41% while white residents see a rate of home ownership exceeding 75%. Twin Cities banks are four times more likely to give Black residents toxic and dangerous sub-prime loans than their white counterparts. African American and American Indian infants are twice as likely to die as white infants, despite the fact that the state as a whole has amongst the lowest infant mortality rates. This trend is troubling and is even more troubling in light of the fact that infant mortality for non-white residents has been getting worse in Minnesota over the past five years. Finally while students across the Twin Cities and Minnesota score collectively amongst the best in the U.S. by most academic measures, the scores of students of color have remained stagnant for years amongst the lowest in the U.S. Last year, while 68% of white students were ‘proficient’ in reading and math, Black students showed proficiency in reading at a rate of 34% and math at a rate of 32%. Thus while Minnesota and Twin Cities project an image of a progressive, tolerant land of equality and harmony, it is little more than a rhetorical veil for some of the worst inequalities in the U.S. today.

The adoption of the Reading Horizons curriculum was brought in as a band-aid to ‘fix’ the inequalities in education without acknowledging the source of the inequalities. Much worse though, the curriculum has only agitated the existing tensions. The fabric of inequality exists not only in schools and the response has come not just from within the schools but from all around them.

Saturated with racist and sexist content, the curriculum of Reading Horizons was adopted by the state of Minnesota’s largest and most diverse school district. There is no wonder why the content has been so troubling to the community though. Reading Horizons is comprised of an all-white male board of directors who lead a company that professes to be a “faith based” organization. Amongst the troubling texts it produced and distributed is Lazy Lucy, about a young Black girl who refuses to clean her “hut” in an unspecified part of Africa, and Nieko, the Hunting Girl, about a young Native American girl who hunts wooly mammoths. Another book, allegedly about the importance of the printing press, uses the example of the benefit of printed press for the “discovery of America” by Christopher Columbus. The book goes on to asks, “What do you think would have happened if Christopher Columbus had not read?” This question arrived in curriculum purchased for a city that in 2014 became amongst the nation first to reject ‘Columbus Day’ in favor of Indigenous People’s Day.

In conjunction with the dismantling of other important public resources such as housing, health care or job-training programs, schools and the teachers in them have been under attack from multiple fronts for years, blamed for the ills of society, ills that have been exploited by and created by the routine exploitation and oppression of d communities of color and the working class. Education as a whole has been the target in recent years of for-profit industries manifested in the forms of testing and publicly funded but privately operated charter schools. Both charter schools and testing companies have routinely exploited the growing ‘achievement gap’ to achieve a destabilization of public schools and teachers unions, while deflecting attention away from the fact that the gap has largely been the result of the re-segregation of schools and of the larger social fabric of communities across the U.S. Schools today are more segregated than they were at the time of Brown v. Board of Education and are only part of much greater crises rising in communities across the country.

A major thrust of the attack has been on teachers, specifically their unions, which, much like other public sector unions, have been seen as a target of big business for years. As a result of the strain placed on them by politicians and private profiteers trying to turn schools into factories and offer children into the school-to-prison pipeline that has decimated oppressed nationality (African American, Chicanos, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans) communities, many people are leaving the teaching field. Teacher shortages nationwide are further leaving communities of the greatest need, particularly those located in high concentrations poverty and in communities of color, short on quality resources. This crisis has only continued to undermine public education, teachers unions and, most importantly, the children and communities they serve - especially communities of color.

In the midst of a nationwide education crisis, many educators are creating strong alliance with the community to reclaim schools. From Chicago to Seattle, Portland to Saint Paul, educators, parents, students and communities are fighting austerity. The struggle against racist curriculum in Minneapolis is part of a larger movement demanding corporate profiteers keep their hands off public education.

The next Board of Education meeting is Oct. 13 at 1250 W Broadway Avenue in Minneapolis. Public comments will be heard and further action is being planned. Supporters are encouraged to come and demand and end to this reading curriculum and for community control over curriculum and content in our schools.