Minnesota’s charter public school enrollment is growing

Two things are clear about Minnesota’s charter public schools. Growing numbers of families are selecting these schools for their children. And, as someone told me many years ago, “when you’ve seen one charter, you’ve seen one charter” – as opposed to the observation, “when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Because President Barack Obama proclaimed May 4-10 as National Charter School Week, this seems like a good time to look at what’s happening in this part of Minnesota’s public education system.

First, there is a lot of growth. Minnesota Department of Education data shows that the number of students attending charter schools has risen steadily over the last decade. Minnesota charters enrolled about 12,100 students, K-12 in the 2002-03 school year. For 2012-13, K-12 charter enrollment had grown to about 41,600 – or by almost 30,000 students.

Meanwhile, comparing district and charter public schools, district schools enroll the most students. But there has been some enrollment decline. In 2002-03, district public schools enrolled about 824,700 students, K-12. By 2012-13, the K-12 enrollment had declined to about 780,900, a reduction of almost 44,000 students.

Nationally, charter enrollment has grown to more than 2 million. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws.

Secondly, the charter sector of public education is very diverse. All are public, and their students take the same statewide tests as district public schools. Charters differ widely in that:

• Some are for elementary, middle or high school levels, and some are for grades K-12 or different ranges, such as Forest Lake’s North Lakes Academy (middle and high school students) and Lakes International Language Academy (K-6).

• Philosophies vary, as seen in the two charters in Stillwater. St. Croix Prep is “based on the classical methodology of grammar, logic and rhetoric.” New Heights said it “emphasizes small class sizes, generally with fewer than 20 students per class, and an academic approach to education that is both personalized and nurturing.”

• Some attract high school students with whom traditional schools haven’t been successful, like Northwest Passage in Coon Rapids and Watershed in Richfield.

• Others attract a broader variety of students, like Kaleidoscope in Otsego, Spectrum High School in Elk River and PACT in Ramsey.

• Some focus on language like Spanish, Russian or Chinese, such as International Spanish Language Academy and Nasha Shkola, both in Minnetonka, Lakes International Language Academy in Forest Lake and Yinghua Academy in Minneapolis.

• Some stress arts, like Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins and St. Paul’s Conservatory for Performing Arts and High School for Recording Arts.

• Some promote a classical or Core Knowledge approach, such as Eagle Ridge in Eden Prairie, St. Croix Prep in Stillwater, Parnassus in Blaine, and Beacon Prep and Seven Hills in Bloomington.

• Others use the Montessori curriculum and instructional approach (a more “hands-on, active style of learning”), such as Swan River in Monticello, Great River in St. Paul and World Learner in Chaska.

• Some offer online instruction, like Trio-Wolf Creek in Chisago Lakes, Blue Sky, based in West St. Paul, or Connections, based in St. Paul.

The best place to learn about the range of Minnesota’s charter schools is from the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, www.mncharterschools.org.

Is this good for Minnesota students? Overall, I think the answer is “yes.” First, some students who have not succeeded in traditional schools have done well in charters. Public school options recognize students don’t all learn in the same way.

A second benefit has been the encouragement to school districts to refine and revise what they offer. A few of many examples: Forest Lake decided to offer a district Montessori school, Minnetonka a Chinese program and Rochester a Core Knowledge School partly because they saw the success and popularity of charters with these features.

Third, charters have given new professional opportunities for educators. This includes the chance to create “teacher led” schools, something like farmer cooperatives. In these schools, teachers are the majority of those on the board, hiring staff to help them with business and other functions.

Some charters have been closed because of academic or financial problems. While this is a last step, it shows these schools are accountable.

Wisely, we’ve mostly stopped debating which are better – district or charter public schools. Given the diversity of schools in each part of public education, this debate does not make much sense.

But increasing enrollments show charters are an option that many families want.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.