OPINION

30 years into public charter school movement

By Aaliyah Hodge and Joe Nathan

Parents such as Melissa Sondrol, Dana Anton, Latoya Whittaker and Mike Fabisch and students like Darnella Frazier help explain a trend in Minnesota's chartered public schools, this year celebrating their 30th anniversary. This idea, now in 43 states, has grown steadily as Minnesota district enrollment declined. More students attend charters in suburban and rural Minnesota communities than in Minneapolis and St Paul.

Our just-completed analysis of Minnesota Department of Education data shows that since 2001, Minnesota K-12 charter enrollment has grown from 10,162 to 65,420. Meanwhile, district enrollment declined from 850,765 to 785,345. Why?

Melissa Sondrol's son Jon attends Northwest Passage High School (NWPHS) in Coon Rapids. Sondrol says NWPHS is "a life changer for Jon. He's one of the kids who slipped through the cracks … . We've gone from a sullen kid who doesn't smile much to a youngster who is excited about school and who has many friends."

Dana Anton explained that "we chose Kaleidoscope [in Otsego] because we wanted our daughter to have a chance to excel. In the larger public school, she was only a number … . Our daughter flourished due to the educators and staff."

Latoya Whittaker wrote that Friendship Academy in Minneapolis, which won a federal award for outstanding academic achievement, "helped my children by providing a caring, encouraging and nurturing learning environment."

Mike Fabisch's son attended PiM Arts High School (Performing Institute of Minnesota) in Eden Prairie. He's one of 24 selected from more than 2,000 applicants for the University of Michigan's Musical Theater program. Fabisch wrote: "This can be directly attributed to his time at PiM … . [M]y son wanted to attend a school that would allow him to put more focus on his art. He did not want to attend a large 'factory' school. PiM fit the bill to perfection … . PiM not only allowed my child to continue excelling academically … he grew as an individual and even more so as an artist."

You may recognize Frazier's name. She's a Minneapolis charter school student. Recently she won a Pulitzer Prize nod "for courageously recording the murder of George Floyd."

As of Oct. 1, 2020, Minnesota had 174 operational charter schools. Data from the 2020-21 school year show that, compared with state averages, charters enrolled a higher percentage of:

• English-language learners (21% vs. 7%).

• Low-income students (50% vs. 30%).

• Students of color (61% vs. 34%).

Charters also enroll comparable percentages of students with special needs, serving about 1% fewer students than Minnesota's average.

Minneapolis charter public schools serve a higher percent of low-income students (67% in charter schools, compared with 54% among traditional Minneapolis district schools); English-language learners (25% charter, 18% district) and students of color (71% charter, 63% district).

Minnesota became chartering's birthplace by adopting legislation in June 1991. Chartering gives educators opportunities to create new public schools, supervised by nonprofit groups (such as Volunteers of America or "Minnesota Guild," run in part by former teacher union presidents) or districts. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools documents many locally developed innovations on its website.

Chartering comes in part from equity pioneers like Rosa Parks and Kenneth Clark, who urged creation of new public schools outside local district control. President Joe Biden recently joined every president from Bill Clinton to recommend federal "startup" funds for charters.

These free, nonsectarian independent, public schools are open to and welcome all students. Charters must follow state and federal human rights, discipline, data practice, union organizing and fee laws, to name a few. They are accountable for state academic standards and for meeting commitments in their contracts.

Some youngsters excel in district public schools. This isn't a charter vs. traditional district issue. All children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, deserve a great education and access to strong public-school options. As district public school graduates who've worked with district and chartered schools, we support expanding access to high-quality, culturally affirming education.

Fortunately some districts respond to chartering by creating new options, or by improving existing programs. Other try to prevent charter growth. Stifling creativity and freedom within limits, whether in district or chartered schools, is unwise.

We urge foundations, the Minnesota Department of Education, and universities to help district and charter educators learn from each other. We recommend expanding collaborative efforts like those helping to reduce youth/family homelessness, increasing high school/college dual credit programs and other widely beneficial work.

Aaliyah Hodge, the lead author of the analysis described in this column, is the senior consultant for the Center for School Change. Joe Nathan, a co-author of the analysis, is the center's director.