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Campaign to halt charter-school growth is stirring up a heated debate in St. Paul

Supporters of a moratorium say charters are siphoning students and funding from the district and furthering segregation in the schools. Opponents say district schools are failing many students.

photo of students boarding school buses
Students board buses at Higher Ground Academy, a St. Paul charter school.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Last spring, a group of St. Paul parents launched a campaign to halt charter school growth in their city. And they have already built a pretty influential list of supporters — one that includes school board members, City Council members and more. 

Most recently, the group — called Parents for St. Paul Schools — sent a survey out to school board candidates ahead of Election Day, asking them if they support a moratorium on new charter schools and the expansion of existing ones in St. Paul. 

Board Chair Zuki Ellis (who successfully ran for a second term) answered: “Yes, to both.”

She’d held off on committing to the idea earlier this year, when the St. Paul Federation of Educators, the local teachers union, had made a similar pitch that included a study to better understand the impacts of charter school growth on district schools. 

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In a city with a robust charter sector — many of which have attracted St. Paul students searching for culturally affirming learning environments or other supports they weren’t finding in traditional public schools — talks of a moratorium are stirring up a heated debate. 

Supporters of a moratorium say charters are siphoning students, along with the state and federal dollars that follow them, away from the district and furthering racial segregation in the city’s schools. Opponents say the moratorium talk sidesteps a more important question: How are traditional public schools failing students who choose to enroll in charters instead? 

It’s a debate state and local leaders are likely to pay more attention to this upcoming session, as union-led calls for moratoriums on charter school growth continue to gain momentum nationally. 

Here’s a recap of how the moratorium debate has taken shape in St. Paul. And a look at what, exactly, would need to happen for the birthplace of charter schools to reverse course.

Funding, segregation concerns

Parents for St. Paul Schools has been leading the local campaign for a moratorium on charter school growth in St. Paul. 

Clayton Howatt, a district parent, says the group formed last spring. He, along with two other parents — Meg Luger-Nikolai, an attorney with Education Minnesota, and Lesley Lavery, an associate professor at Macalester College — joined forces to generate a more grassroots discussion around the impacts local charter schools were having on district schools. 

That includes funding issues related to the district missing out on state and federal dollars that follow students to charter schools. Compounding financial pressures, the district is still responsible for covering special education costs for St. Paul students who opt to enroll in charters. 

“Every year it’s just another deficit. More positions cut at our schools and more students leaving,” Howatt said. “We see the financial impact at our neighborhood schools when that happens. That was one of the main reasons for starting the group.”

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According to data compiled by the state Department of Education, 22 percent of students living in St. Paul opted to enroll in a charter school in 2018. That figure is up from 6 percent in 2000, which grew every year since.  

There’s another primary concern, Howatt adds: concerns that charter schools are increasing segregation in St. Paul schools. That includes both charter schools where white families concentrate, as well as charter schools where students of color concentrate, he notes. 

In a shared effort, the St. Paul teachers union is currently looking to negotiate a comprehensive study on the impact of charter schools on the district into its new contract. The union’s president, Nick Faber, describes this ask as an extension of the joint door-knocking recruitment efforts the two entities partook in last year, to sell district schools to folks who might otherwise opt to open-enroll in a local charter school or neighboring district school.

The other piece, from the union’s perspective, is getting the district to fully fund student services needed to keep students from seeking better supports elsewhere. 

“At this point in the game, we’re not talking about eliminating or taking away anybody’s school, but just taking a pause — slowing down and putting a moratorium on — so we can actually do a study to see what impact this is having,” Faber said, adding “we know we can’t ‘[school] choice’ our way into excellence for all kids.”

Reactions from charter school leaders, supporters

Samuel Yigzaw, executive director of Higher Ground Academy — a St. Paul charter school that recently expanded its footprint by opening a new campus in the Como neighborhood — says the threat of a moratorium on future expansions doesn’t have students’ best interest at heart. 

His charter school, which primarily serves East African families, focuses on college prep by placing a heavy emphasis on advanced courses. Many of the traditional public schools nearby offer good advanced placement options, he says — but not all students are accessing those opportunities. 

“You don’t see the type of children that come to our school in those programs,” he said, offering AP, IB and even advanced math classes as examples. “If these opportunities are not provided to the students in traditional public schools, what’s wrong with them going to a place where the options are available to them?”

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If a moratorium were to go into effect, preventing the school from future expansions, Yigzaw says more pressing questions would be left unresolved: How are traditional public schools failing the students who opt to seek educational opportunities elsewhere? And who would be most impacted? 

“We’re telling some children from low-income families, from minority backgrounds: ‘Whether it works for you, or not, you should stay where you are — because schools like Higher Ground Academy would not be allowed to expand,” he said.

High Ground Academy is overseen by a nonprofit authorizer, as are the majority of charter schools currently operating in Minnesota. It’s an important characteristic, says Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, since quality issues with for-profit charter schools have given rise to more aggressive anti-charter school pushes nationwide.

photo of higher ground academy school building
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Higher Ground Academy primarily serves East African families and focuses on college prep by placing a heavy emphasis on advanced courses.
He says his group has been advocating for added layers of accountability and transparency measures around for-profit companies that run charter schools, which have been eager to gain a larger foothold in Minnesota. 

Big picture, he says, the state should focus on better documenting innovation in the charter sector — something central to the creation of charter school law — rather than look for ways to restrict innovation from happening. 

“Instead of  a moratorium, why aren’t we focused on how traditional school districts and charters can work together, for the kids?” he said, adding it’s time for the state step up and facilitate that conversation. 

But that seemingly straightforward ask is inhibited by the fact that charter schools are deeply politicized. Unions have long opposed charter schools, which traditional district schools compete against for students and student-based revenue. 

“This is part of the union playbook, from across the country,” Daniel Sellers, executive director of EdAllies, a local ed reform group, said. “The moratorium is just the first step. Then they find other ways to undermine existing charter schools as well.”

Lost in the moratorium campaign, he says, is a concern for students. “Essentially, the message is: Our schools aren’t serving you well and you are seeking out other options,” Sellers said. “And rather than improve the school system to serve students of color better, what we’re going to do is strip you of those choices.” 

Ted Kolderie, a contributor to the original charter-school law who now serves as co-founder and senior fellow at Education Evolving, says the competition created through open-enrollment laws — where students have the option to enroll in other traditional public districts, charter schools, alternative learning center and post-secondary options — helps hold districts like St. Paul Public Schools accountable. 

“A lot of the people using those choices are families that are low-income and communities of color. Why would the school board want to take away their choices?” he said. “This is enormously embarrassing for them. It’s an admission that they are not able to offer what the parents in St. Paul feel they want and need for their children.”

Who has the power to halt charter-school growth?

For all of the union and parent group’s efforts lobbying the St. Paul School Board for support of a moratorium on charter school growth, there’s little the board can actually do. 

School boards don’t hold jurisdiction over charter schools in Minnesota — not even those that set up shop within their city limits. 

The St. Paul City Council — another recruit to the moratorium campaign — doesn’t hold much more power, when it comes to enacting a moratorium. It does, however, have the ability to put up barriers related to building permits for new or expanding charter schools. And, like the cash-strapped St. Paul Public Schools district, the city has growing financial concerns around charter school growth. 

Not only are they skimming students from the public school, but they’re also locating in places like Larpenteur Avenue, Energy Park Drive — places that are industrial-tax-based,” says Amy Brendmoen, president of the St. Paul City Council. “So our highest taxing level comes off the tax roles, so it hurts us in more ways than one.”

She’d like to see changes made that would restrict new charters from setting up shop in those zoning areas. And if a moratorium makes its way to state lawmakers next year, she says the council could consider passing a resolution urging its passage. 

At the state level, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, says he’s currently drafting a bill for a moratorium on charter school growth. 

He’s not yet settled on whether the moratorium should apply to all charters, statewide, or be confined to St. Paul. Nor has he decided if he’ll pursue a permanent or temporary moratorium. But he knows the interest in a moratorium is building. 

“I know we have excellent charter schools that are operating in my district — very reputable and credible and necessary. But I think the proposal for a moratorium is a conversation that is overdue,” he said. “I think we should hit the pause button on allowing new ones so we can really examine where the accountability lies with where school funding is going.”