As so often happens, the School Board election, now concluded, functioned as a sort of proxy conflict for various parties in the city.
There were two challengers from the civic-Dem coalition: Raynard Ross and Monica Randles, both enjoying endorsement and monetary support from the Kent County Dems and the local education union.
Opposed has been a cluster of candidates favored by the Chamber/GOP interests: incumbent Catherine Mueller, a leader in the present direction of the schools; one enjoying fairly explicit Republican support, David Clark; and a representative from the older, broad civic leadership cadre, former Urban League president Walter Brame.
The conventional read on such a split is that of a division between those supporting the GRPS administration and Bernard Taylor, and those favoring a change of direction and emphasis. It is better, perhaps to think of the divisions taking place along two axes:
Axis One: Reform v. Continuity
The obvious split is between Taylor and the teachers (and their allies). This, however masks the underlying issue. Like him or not, Taylor has pushed a number of reform issues focused on the general schools. Teachers and parents from the specialty programs have pushed back. This battle has been fought along several fronts, beginning with a real rift between the administration and the teachers, a rift further compounded by the consolidation of programs and closures of schools — both creating great displeasure on the west side of the city. The split gets fought over essentially educational policy issues, such as H grade or blended classes, overlay this with the conflict between Taylor and the teaching staff. For the neighborhoods this is a question of preserving conventional traditional schools, for teachers there is the continued disruption made all the more painful of the way things once were. For residents and staff alike the memory of what once (imagined) was, serves as a sort of grief. This was the axis of the last school board battle, and it has taken the same shape in some unfortunate ads this cycle as well.
Axis Two: Sending v. Stakeholder
But there is a second division that is no less significant for Grand Rapids Public Schools, that of the division between the sending community — those homes that have their children in the general education programs of the school system — and the stakeholder community with children in specialized, charter, schools of choice or private settings. This latter division is one riven by issues of race and class. The sending community is predominantly, overwhelmingly minority and poor; the stakeholder community is better off, conventionally middle class, with many choosing to stay in the city.
This division is sharpened by geographic (and cultural) separation. While the West Side has kept its neighborhood schools in the southeast side and in the north, large parts of the city no longer have significant proportion of their children in GRPS, specifically those neighborhoods include those south of Burton SE, east of Plymouth, and north of Knapp. The vision for schools among the stakeholder community is more conventional in its approach, their expectation for GRPS is shaped by their experience in surrounding schools, charters, or in the specialized programs. And for the older, empty-nesters the vision of the schools is one shaped by memory of their own school experience. From this side, innovative programs such as the H grade, or blended classes meet with skepticism at best.
And if the these two sets of dividing lines were not enough, the continued financial constraints of reduced State funding and sluggish economy only widen gaps and further heighten tensions.
A New Map
In light of the above splits, the civic landscape takes a different shape, one where we now have four quadrants.
Reform / Sending: Walter Brame. He has been broadly supportive of the administration, and is clearly anchored in the Sending community.
Reform / Stakeholder: Catherine Mueller, but also David Clark. Both speak from north side, middle class side; both were passionate about schools and their possibilities.
Continuity / Sending: Reynard Ross. The real strength here has been his grounding in issues and a clear sense of how the two communities (Sending and Stakeholder) need to work together. By all lights the leader in the race, the one whom none really attack.
Cointinuity / Stakeholder: Monica Randles. She models the exemplary pursuit of educational excellence and high standards. Her distance from the Sending community (seen in voting record) has been her vulnerability in the attack ads.
When framed in this fashion, we have a better understanding of the gaps that we can heal, the gaps that the State decisions will widen, as well as what paths for new coalitions and reform might be.