Meet Mike McFadden, a little-known businessman and the Republican contender challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Al Franken in Minnesota’s Senate race.
The campaign has been an uphill battle for McFadden, a financial adviser who various polls have had down by as much as double digits. That’s not entirely surprising. He’s raised a little more than $4 million to Franken’s $17-plus million, and it’s no fun running against an incumbent with a solid approval rating and wide name recognition, even if your opponent is a former cast member of “Saturday Night Live.”
But we at Politics K-12 noticed something blog-worthy about McFadden’s candidacy: He’s made education a central pillar of his campaign.
The father of six sits on the board of directors for Cristo Rey, a Jesuit network of high-performing charter high schools that serve economically disadvantaged students. There are 26 schools across the country, and McFadden has been involved with the Twin Cities’ school for more than four years.
If you visit his campaign web site, you’ll see education woven through almost every page. Exhibit A:
“If there’s one other thing you should know about Mike, it’s that he is passionate about educating our youth ... As Senator, he hopes to spark a serious policy debate about our nation’s education system and how we, as a nation, can and must do better.”
So we asked him a little more about his education policy stances. Here’s what he had to say ...
*Note: Interview edited for space.
Talk to me a bit about Cristo Rey and how you first became involved?
It’s changed my life. I’m a dad. Mary Kate and I have six kids. I’m a businessman. And six years ago, this school was started by the name of Cristo Rey with the mission of educating economically disadvantaged children. I got involved five and a half years ago. When I say it changed my life, I mean it opened my eyes to the opportunities we have in our community to dramatically change people’s lives. We have 26 Cristo Rey schools around the country now. The first was opened 14 years ago in Chicago. This will be our 7th year [in the Twin Cities]. ... We’re in a really tough neighborhood in the Twin Cities. Ninety percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch. Ninety percent of our kids are either African or Hispanic. Freshmen, when they first come in, test one to two grades below grade level. We’re not skimming kids. That’s not our mission. Our mission is to educate the neighborhood. Last year we graduated 100 percent of our seniors. I believe 78 percent went to college, and the one that didn’t go to college enrolled in the military.
I’ve learned things that I can’t be quiet about. In Minnesota we have great public schools that we can very, very proud of. But unfortunately we don’t have great public schools for everyone. I’m embarrassed to share with you that we have [some of the] the worst outcomes in the country for minorities. We have [one of the] the highest achievement gaps in the country. And in the Minneapolis school district, they’re spending [approximately] $21,000 per child in high school and over 64 percent is spent on nonteacher expenses. I think it’s just immoral. We spend [at Cristo Rey] about 60 percent of that. I’ve gotten to know a number of people in the charter school community, because, you know, charter schools originated in Minnesota. There are number of charter schools in Minnesota serving the same demographic and getting the same results [as Cristo Rey]. I think we have multiple data points ... that show we have a dramatically better way of doing things.
I want to see change. Sen. Franken sits on the education committee in Washington, and things haven’t gotten better. They’ve gotten worse. That’s depressing. What gives me hope is what we’ve been able to accomplish.
If you were elected and you got to sit on that education committee, what type of education policies would you support:
What I would like to see happen is, in broken school districts, I want to see dollars allocated away from these broken school districts and be used to dramatically increase the number of charter schools in these areas. And then I want to measure them. I’m a businessman. I’m used to measuring everything. I want to measure them locally. I’m not a big fan of getting the federal government involved, and I’m not a big fan of standards. But you’ve got to have accountability. There’s a number of charter schools doing phenomenally well, and there are a number that aren’t. I want to replicate those that are. The thing that’s great about the charter school movement is that it’s been going on long enough that we have a tremendous amount of data out there.
On your campaign web site, you describe the current education system as “a broken system that was built to serve special interests.” Can you talk a bit about how you see the current system propping up different special interests and how you would change that?
Look, to me it’s simple. I’m for kids. I’m going to scream for kids and advocate for kids. If you’re against kids, I’m going to be against you. I think the results we have are immoral. ... And the vast majority of the dollars aren’t even getting into that classrooms, and that’s wrong.
You mentioned standards, so I have to ask your opinion on the Common Core State Standards, which are center-stage on the education stage right now.
I don’t like federally mandated standards. At Cristo Rey we have our own standards. We set them with the input of our principals and educators. We looked at things like the common core and multiple state standards around the country and ACT standards. And then we implemented our own standards that we felt fit us best. We’re very good at measuring how we’re doing against those standards. Minnesota has not adopted the common core because we have higher standards than that already. My dad always said, ‘The road to hell was based on good intentions.’ At the end of the day, it doesn’t come down to intentions. It comes down to outputs. Are you making progress? Are you moving the ball forward? I can tell you with our African-American and Hispanic communities, we are not moving the ball forward [as a state].