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In the age of school choice, St. Paul Public Schools must be bold, proactive

Now that we know that the St. Paul Public Schools needs to select a new superintendent, people across the city have begun to propose priorities that they believe the next leader should address.

Now that we know that the St. Paul Public Schools needs to select a new superintendent, people across the city have begun to propose priorities that they believe the next leader should address. I’d like to add one to the list: He or she needs to much more clearly define the role of the St. Paul school district (and by extension all school districts) in the age of school choice.

Back when I graduated from St. Paul Central High School in the mid-1980s, the district had a clear and compelling purpose: to educate all of the kids in the city who didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to attend a private or parochial school.

But the explosion of educational options over the past two decades has eroded the district’s share of the educational market. Today, more than 5,000 students attend charter schools in St. Paul, and still more are educated through open enrollment in other districts, distance learning, home schooling and studying at a college through the postsecondary options program.

To date, St. Paul — like most districts — has responded to these trends by working harder to market its current schools and by developing a few new schools and programs that are designed to appeal to today’s students and parents. That response may have been sufficient when the number of educational alternatives was relatively small, but a bolder strategy is now needed.

‘Right sizing’ won’t be enough
That strategy may need to include “right sizing” the district by closing schools, but it must also go far beyond that painful step. If the St. Paul Public Schools’ only response to the challenge of charters is to cut its own capacity, then even a district that is the right size today will find itself with too many empty desks tomorrow. 

In contrast, a more powerful and proactive approach could be built upon the following core principles:

Regard the entire city as a single system: The attendance boundaries and other lines that define St. Paul’s school choice system were last redrawn during the early days of desegregation and magnet schools. The district now needs to update attendance areas and transportation routes to reflect the existence of charter schools, and to incentivize students to stay close to home while still giving them the option of attending school in other areas of the city.

Within the district, decentralize authority: At a time when charter school leaders can respond to changing needs without asking anyone outside their school community for permission to act, district schools need the authority and the capacity to shape their educational programs as long as they are rooted in data and research. Toward that end, St. Paul should decentralize decision-making authority within a district-wide system of accountability and support.

Embrace the other options: Car dealerships often choose to locate along the same strip of road because they know that providing consumers with multiple options in one location increases the total number who stop by to shop. Guided by the same logic, the St. Paul Public Schools should rename and reorganize its superb Student Placement Center into the Citywide Choice Center, where families can receive unbiased information on all the educational options in the city, including both district and charter public schools. If the district has a great product to offer (as I know it does), this will help rather than hurt its bottom line. Similarly, St. Paul should begin to invest heavily in distance learning so that students from other districts can choose to take on-line classes taught by St. Paul teachers rather than forcing St. Paul students to take classes taught by teachers based in Houston, Minn., or Houston, Texas.

Emphasize integration: Charter schools that are explicitly intended to meet the needs of students from a single culture have proven very popular in St. Paul and other communities. The district could try to compete with that approach by replicating it, but in the age of President Barack Obama I would instead advise it to invest in programs that bring students from multiple cultures and backgrounds together to learn.

Its role is indispensible
It is important for the school district to make these and other changes — not just for the good of the organization, but for the good of the city. No matter how many new educational options emerge in the years ahead, the St. Paul Public Schools will still have an indispensible role to pay as the only entity that has the responsibility and the capacity to meet the needs of all students in the community. For example, when the city learned in 2004 that 1,000 Hmong students would soon be arriving from a refugee camp in Thailand, it was the school district that marshaled the resources and the expertise to create Transitional Language Centers (TLCs) that quickly and successfully helped students adjust from one culture, language and society to another. No single charter school could have met that need.

A healthy school district must be the backbone of a broader body of school choice in St. Paul and every other community. But if the district is to play that role successfully in the years ahead, it must rethink some policies and practices that linger from the days when it was the only public educational game in town.

Kent Pekel is executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota. He was a finalist for the position of Superintendent of Schools in St. Paul in 2006.