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Putting the ‘public’ back into ‘public charter schools’

St. Paul’s battle over what to do with the St. Andrew’s church building highlights an important question about public charter schools: Just how public are they?

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David Greenwood-Sanchez
St. Paul’s battle over what to do with the St. Andrew’s church building highlights an important question about public charter schools: Just how public are they?

The Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS), which has expressed the need to demolish the historic St. Andrew’s church building in order to increase its enrollment, continues to argue that as the property owner, it can do as it pleases. This overlooks a crucial point, namely that TCGIS is not a traditional private entity; it is a public charter school. It offers a tuition-free education, paid for by state taxpayer dollars (totaling $5.9 million for the 2017-18 year). It also received $8.5 million in conduit bonds in 2013 to remodel the school site and church, which it now wants to destroy.

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TCGIS has also distanced itself from the public sphere to combat historic designation of St. Andrew’s, which was designed by St. Paul’s first City Architect, Charles A. Hausler. (Hausler, a renowned Minnesota architect, has six buildings on the National Register, including the Minnesota Building, the Minnesota Milk Company Building, and the St. Anthony and Riverview Public Libraries). Even though our public institutions – St. Paul’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) – have recommended the building for historic designation, TCGIS claims that this is strictly a private issue, and one that can’t be “forced” upon it.

When we allow public charter schools to shift between public and private spheres at their convenience, we undermine our public institutions, our communities, and our rights as taxpayers. The end result is a dangerous one — that our public charter schools only carry the quality of “public” at the moment of acquiring funds.

This lack of accountability extends to other issues, particularly the racial and socioeconomic integration of our school system. As the St. Paul NAACP has stated, “TCGIS’ student population is 87% white, 13% students of color, and only 7% low-income (qualifying for free-or-reduced-price lunch). In stark contrast, the surrounding school district, St. Paul Public Schools, is 21% white, 79% students of color, and 68% low-income. Expansion of such a predominantly white and relatively wealthy charter school in the heart of the city would frustrate efforts to desegregate St. Paul schools and contribute to further racial and socioeconomic segregation.”

Is this the type of school system that was envisioned when, in 1992, Minnesota opened the nation’s first charter schools? Does the public have no say in these matters? Is charter school performance the only area in which accountability is accepted?

I applaud my Como Area neighbors who have organized as Save Historic Saint Andrew’s (SHSA) to confront TCGIS and the expansion of the charter school system. In doing so, they are reminding us that public accountability – and this is much more than the careful monitoring of test scores – always accompanies public dollars. This type of community engagement and debate is long overdue, and will only serve to sharpen the quality and character of our charter schools. I challenge the St. Paul City Council, and in particular, Council President Amy Brendmoen, to follow their lead.

Note: The proposed demolition of the St. Andrew’s church building is scheduled for public debate before the St. Paul City Council on March 20.

David Greenwood-Sanchez is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is originally from St. Paul, and attended St. Paul Central. He currently lives in Mexico City, as a Fulbright-Hays DDRA fellow. His parents, Stephen and Rosario, are both members of the Save Historic Saint Andrew’s group.