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

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

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. 

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.”

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?”

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.”

Comments (66)

  1. Submitted by Tomas Mauser on 11/19/2019 - 10:10 am.

    Taxpayer money for education should go to schools that most effectively and efficiently educate students. In America, parents in every income bracket should be able to choose which accredited schools they want to educate their children.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 11/21/2019 - 01:27 pm.

      Mandating efficiency in schools leads to nothing more than teaching stupidity and conformity. The rich send their kids to private schools so they can have a 10:1 teacher-student ratio. Why can’t the rest of America have that?

  2. Submitted by John Webster on 11/19/2019 - 10:22 am.

    No need to overthink this issue. The traditional public school establishment wants to have its monopoly back where students are forced to attend the school that the district assigns them to. This is basic human nature: every enterprise prefers to have no competition.

    My kids attended excellent charter schools for many years that offered superb curricula that traditional public schools won’t even consider. I also served on a charter school board for three years, and I found out quickly that most parents didn’t send their kids to that charter for the curriculum – they sent their kids to the charter to escape the endemic student behavior problems in the traditional public schools. That’s by far the top reason why thousands of black parents send their kids to charters in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Sad but true as I learned from personal experience.

    • Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/20/2019 - 07:53 am.

      So what’s your solution for the behavior problems? Traditional schools are required to take and keep all students. We can’t just kick them all out, and society (you) fail to pay for the services these kids need. I agree it is a behavior issue. So what’s your solution?

      • Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 11/20/2019 - 02:11 pm.

        Simple solution: Require each charter school to accept *every* applicant, just as public schools do. The money follows the student, so charter schools have no rational argument against the requirement. They can always get more buildings. More teachers is no problem because there will be fewer teachers needed by the public schools, thus making them available to the charter schools (at higher pay and more benefits, right?).

        • Submitted by Craig Kepler on 02/07/2020 - 08:06 am.

          Charters are in fact required to accept all applicants on either a first-come, first served basis or, if applications exceed capacity, on a lottery basis. They cannot screen based on any factor, including test scores, special ed status, disciplinary history, aptitude, etc.

      • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 11/21/2019 - 10:10 am.

        Alec asked what’s the solution to behavior issues. Of course, there’s no single solution. Among them are
        1. Expansion of community schools (schools sharing space with social service agencies which SPPS strategic plan ignored)
        2. Increase in # of service learning programs (students learning they can make a positive difference as they both study & help solve local or state problems – also ignored by SPPS strategic plan
        3. Giving SPPS educators the chance to create teacher led, more personalized schools or schools within schools (also ignored by SPPS strategic plan – several districts including MPS applied for & received startup funds, SPPS did not despite strong union support
        4. Increasing # of educators of color – SPPS working slowly on this

  3. Submitted by Joe Smith on 11/19/2019 - 10:53 am.

    The first sign of a struggling business if fear of competition. I see public schools fear charter schools, the reason, competition. Give parents a choice for their child’s education, let the best school win.

    • Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/20/2019 - 07:57 am.

      It is not competition when traditional schools have to educate all kids, and charters simply do not. I realize they are required to take “all” students, but they don’t. You will not find a single charter school that has the same proportions of minority, poverty, special education, and English Language learners. Not a single one.

      Some charters might focus on one or two of those categories, but not one charter educates all kids to the same proportions that are expected of traditional schools. From a practical matter it is just more expensive to educate kids when their is a higher concentration of kids, and our society refuses to pay for it. So don’t pretend this is a fair competition when a traditional school has 90% poverty and a charter in the same neighborhood has 10%.

      • Submitted by Robert Wedl on 11/23/2019 - 08:20 am.

        Mr Timmerman. Actually the percentage of students of color, those from families living in poverty, English Language Learners is higher in public chartered schools than in public district schools. These are the disenfranchised people that have not been served well in the past.

      • Submitted by Craig Kepler on 02/07/2020 - 08:08 am.

        This comment is wrong. It would be helpful if you would read the charter law before commenting. Every charter school in Minnesota must accept every student who applies. They cannot screen for aptitude, test scores, special ed status, etc. Charters receive less money per pupil than districts do. They are educating the same student body that districts are, on less money per pupil.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/19/2019 - 11:25 am.

    Turning public education into a “market” was always a daft idea. The charter movement has done nothing to actually improve the quality of education, and the marketing costs that schools are now spending to “attract” students is nothing but a drain on limited resources.

    The mission of public schools is and always was simple: You take all students and deliver the best education you can to all the students take. This business of “shopping” for schools meets a facile consumer demand at the expense of educational outcomes. Sure, many parents are “happy” with their charters but little or no evidence that their kids are actually doing better in the charter than they would in a properly funded public school with appropriate resources. None of our education gaps have been narrowing along with the expansion of charter schools.

    Charters may be attracting students and parent, but their not actually outperforming the public schools. And then when you add open enrollment to the mix, the thing become even more incoherent.

    And whenever we talk about charters someone should always mention the fact that charters originated with the school-choice/voucher movement that was designed to keep school segregated. It’s no wonder that the more students we see enroll in charter the more segregated the schools become… THAT was the idea to begin with. The question is whether or not public tax dollars should be spent to promote segregation?

    • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 11/19/2019 - 12:33 pm.

      The “market” is a reaction to a monopoly that doesn’t serve the customers. Free people do what they believe is in their own best interests, which is counter to the best interests of almost any public accommodation in the current year.

      • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/19/2019 - 05:54 pm.

        “…Free people do what they believe is in their own best interests, which is counter to the best interests of almost any public accommodation in the current year.”

        In practical and intellectual terms, your statement is fraudulent, but even considering only the philosophy, it doesn’t work on two levels: First, if “acting in your own best interests” was truly “counter” to the best interests of our society, any criminal activity, from the most minor to rape and murder, would be perfectly OK. Crime, ipso facto, runs counter to the interests of society and public accommodations; Second, as a gentle reminder, there are no human societies in recorded history – zero – wherein individuals could do whatever was “in their own best interests” without consideration of the effects of their action(s) on the larger society.

        If you’d like us to drop back to the Neolithic, where “society” consisted of nothing larger than a family-based clan, I still think there would be considerable difficulty in keeping the clan together if Urg could do whatever he wanted, no matter what effect it had on other family members.

        • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 11/20/2019 - 09:47 am.

          I was not clear, sir. By “public accommodation” I mean to say any accommodation granted society by government (ie; schools, transit, refuse removal etc), not society itself.

          Non-sociopaths always consider the impact their own best interests will have on those around them, although given the state of American society in the current year I must admit that statement does have a few caveats.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/20/2019 - 12:09 pm.

            “I mean to say any accommodation granted society by government”

            Connor, these aren’t “accommodations” they’re public “services”.

            We live in a liberal democracy. The “government” isn’t separate from society, or the people, it doesn’t “grant” services. Citizens elect representatives who in turn run the government according to local charters and State and Federal Constitutions.

            Our public education system wasn’t “granted” to us, WE created it to fulfill a social and economic necessity. Education in MN is a Constitutional Right, and our public education system was designed to ensure universal access to that right. When we try to convert that Constitutional obligation into a “market” we run a fools errand.

            • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 11/21/2019 - 07:59 am.

              However you wish to describe it, whenever they have that opportunity, people reject public services when they do not represent their best interests. It’s quite evident that this is the case with urban public schools.

    • Submitted by Joe Smith on 11/19/2019 - 12:36 pm.

      Charters were started to give parents a choice in their child’s education. Had nothing to do with segregation. If charter schools don’t do better than public schools, why worry about them. Charter schools will just fade away if they don’t out perform public schools. As public schools continue to fail our children, charter schools will grow…. Its about giving parents a choice, what is wrong with that?

      • Submitted by Pat Thompson on 11/19/2019 - 02:06 pm.

        Joe… there is a body of recorded history showing Paul is right on the history of charters as segregation academies. And Connor… “monopoly” as another word term for public is some nice right-wing language.

        • Submitted by Joe Smith on 11/21/2019 - 10:23 am.

          Pat, charter schools were first put into law in 1991 with Arnie Carlson pushing them for school choice for parents. No indication of segregation at all.

      • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/19/2019 - 06:15 pm.

        “…Its about giving parents a choice, what is wrong with that?”

        First, that’s NOT what the charter movement was originally about. Read Jim Smola’s comment.

        Nothing is wrong with giving parents a choice as long as you don’t mind if those parents cheerfully discriminate against other parents (and their children) who are not like them. It’s also just fine if you don’t mind the society disintegrating socially, economically, and ethnically.

        Public schools remain among the very few social institutions (voting is – at least for the moment – another one) that provide a common experience to members of society from a wide variety of social, religious and economic backgrounds – an experience in democracy not provided by a school that operates in a philosophical and economic silo.

        The original hope was that charter schools would be fertile grounds for innovation in education, and those innovations, when proven successful by the charter, would then be exported (at no charge, since the charters were being funded by taxpayer dollars) to the “regular” public schools. Alas, few charter school are particularly innovative. Those that have produced academically-successful students have largely (not entirely, but more often than not) done so using the very same “traditional” methods decried by public school critics.

        One other little-noted factor in this debate is that – again not always, but more often than not – charter schools don’t spend substantial portions of their annual budgets on interscholastic sports. The focus tends to be on academic work, and sports are either totally absent, or are handled through off-campus or parental “club” organizations that are privately funded by those parents. Some public school districts – at parental request – spend 10% and more of their annual budgets on interscholastic sports. Often, it’s even more, if coaching stipends and transportation are included. I was a successful high school head coach for 15 seasons. Taxpayer dollars are typically better spent on classrooms than athletic facilities.

        • Submitted by Joe Smith on 11/21/2019 - 02:16 pm.

          Ray, what good is a “common experience “ if it’s a bad experience with poor outcomes.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/22/2019 - 10:00 am.

            Joe, the public school model is the most successful education in human history.

            • Submitted by Joe Smith on 11/22/2019 - 06:23 pm.

              How about the last 15-20 years? We are 35th in the world in educating our children… Are you talking about 40-60 years ago, then maybe. Certainly not the past 2 decades and especially today!

              • Submitted by David Lundeen on 11/23/2019 - 08:02 am.

                Joe, that is by design. There has been an unprecedented assault on education by Republicans, and plenty of Democrats have idly stood by. When decisions are made to destroy public education, whether it’s through attacking teacher’s unions or limiting school funding, it’s hardly surprising that our school rankings go down.

              • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/26/2019 - 10:08 am.

                Joe, our public education system is STILL better than private systems or religious systems, even in the last 15-20 years.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 11/19/2019 - 02:54 pm.

      I think that charter and magnet schools, along with busing, have had very serious unanticipated consequences, the biggest of which is that they have destroyed to basic glue that holds communities together: neighborhood schools.

      Now we have a system where the parents who have the time and/or interest to focus on their kid’s education, find the best solution for their children, and the parents who either don’t care, don’t know any better, or are so busy with multiple jobs to keep a roof over their heads, end up with their kids attending the default neighborhood schools which no longer have any significant parental involvement to make sure that the teachers and the school bureaucracy do a decent job. Add to that a union seniority system that lets all the experienced teachers bail out on these failing schools and you have the disaster that we are now witnessing.

      Now that we have this system, it’s going to be almost impossible to roll the clock back. The first step is to get new leadership to restore trust in the public schools. Part of that needs to be scrapping a seniority based teacher system in favor of a new approach that measures and rewards teachers on their students’ achievements. Designed properly, so that you measure each student’s improvement during a teacher’s tenure, rather than their absolute knowledge level, you could actually end up with a system were the best teachers want to teach in the most challenging schools, where there is the most potential for improvement.

      Unfortunately neither the teachers unions nor the school administration are thinking this way. All they want to do is dump more money into the same old failed bottomless pit. That’s not going to fly.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/25/2019 - 12:55 pm.

        You cannot remove seniority without threatening educational independence. The education system is too vulnerable to takeover by ideological interests, particularly in small, rural districts, to leave the education of our children to the whims of a minority (numbers wise) of the electorate. I will not have my kids schools destroyed by Christian fundamentalist conservatives so you can have the satisfaction of sticking it to unions.

  5. Submitted by Bill Mantis on 11/19/2019 - 12:31 pm.

    As a childless, long-term St. Paul Resident with no dog in the fight, I’d like to see the City Council agree on a tool for measuring the quality of the education a school delivers before ruling on whether the City needs more charter schools. Answer the first question and the answer to the second should become obvious.

  6. Submitted by Julie Stroeve on 11/19/2019 - 12:33 pm.

    no matter where you are on the charter question, their outcomes are just about the same as public education. a very small percentage have better outcomes than public schools. we shouldn’t expect public education to do a better job when charters are siphoning off public tax dollars. charters pick and choose who they educate. public education educates every child, regardless of gender, race, social class, income, and ability.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 11/19/2019 - 01:50 pm.

    Erin, excellent article. The statement on this topic in the Star Tribune that I thought was ill advised and misleading was made by a school board member in St. Paul. She said “the public needs to know how much charter schools cost the district.”

    Two points I would make – the first is that it is the public’s money (tax dollars) not exclusively the St. Paul school district’s. Also, the choice to make with these critical decisions is the parent’s.

    The second point is that most public charter schools get about half of the total revenue that Mpls and St. Paul school districts get. That means when a student attends a public charter school the taxpayer actually saves money because it costs the state and community less.

    My experience working with the Minnesota Transitions Charter School (the largest public charter school in Minnesota with nearly 3,700 students) for the past three years has been eye opening for me. Regarding the 330+ Somali students that MTCS serves – the parents clearly do not feel that their children are safe attending a public school. If a student felt safe and was well served, I don’t believe the parent would make a choice to leave.

    I would urge all parents to look at the MDE Report Card and compare public charters to public schools. Look at how African American, Hispanic, Asian American and ELL (English Language Learners) students do in each school. In several public charter schools that I am familiar with, the students actually perform better in the public charter schools than their urban counterpart.

    I also totally agree with Eugene Piccolo, Executive Director of MACS. There is much that the legislature and MDE could do to improve charter school leadership (training directors), teaching and learning (collaborative staff development), and more equitable funding in public charters (local levy dollars). Special education for students, for example, could be a partnership rather than competition and save both schools revenue. Some school districts like Mounds View do that now.

    Public charters are misunderstood and sometimes perceived as private schools – which they are not. They abide by the same rules and laws as school districts with much less money – they take all students including special education students. The charters that do not abide by these laws and rules should be held accountable, as well as MDE for continuing to authorize them.

  8. Submitted by Jim Smola on 11/19/2019 - 01:55 pm.

    Al Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers created the idea of charter schools as a laboratory for teachers and administrators to collaborate on improving the educational experience for students free from constraints such as laws, policies, and regulations. Innovation was a central premise of the idea.

    Parent choice wasn’t the underlying consideration of the concept. What evolved from the original idea was nothing that Shanker had envisioned and he took a position against the creation of charter schools that many states enacted into law.

    Studies have shown that charter schools do not provide better educational results when similar data is used in comparison.

    The problem with many charter schools is the lack of accountability with the funds (tax dollars) they use to operate. There is very little of any oversight on how the money is expended.

    Another problem is the unintentional issue of segregation that has been allowed to be created by lack of oversight. Some charter schools are solely schools for students of a certain ethnicity which creates schools that lack diversity.

    It is wise for the St. Paul school district to take the time to study the issues of current and future charter schools.

  9. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 11/19/2019 - 03:09 pm.

    The issue really is a society that is doing too little for our children. One in five children live in poverty, a situation they have no opportunity to change. Everyone of them is shortchanged, as are stupidity with mental health issues, who are abused or have learning disorders. The public-charter argument is a distraction, as because we are spending too little time and money to produce great results for all. Kids who are homeless – how do you expect them to keep up? Spend more money on housing homeless families and you improve school performance.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 11/19/2019 - 09:03 pm.

      Yes you do. But you can’t also force families to remain in supportive housing. Some will opt to remain and some for various issues will not or will struggle to pay their portion of the subsidized rent. Also, parent interaction is key. There is a great program, northside achievement zone and I would encourage people to look at what makes the program work, including daily support and mentors to also assist not only the kids, but the parents.

  10. Submitted by Paul Ojanen on 11/20/2019 - 03:09 am.

    Charter schools don’t truly solve any problems. The assumption underlying everything is the “rational market hypothesis”, that markets naturally lead to a best solution. It’s not true and never has been. Like any large public institution public schools must serve everyone, including the children of dysfunctional parents. This elephant cannot be mentioned as it is immediately decried as racist or some other such excuse. What happens is very similar to Gresham’s law…bad behaving students overwhelm the system resources and drive out ordinary or good students. Notice in the article how one official mentions safety; there is a crucial symptom. It’s not just safety, but the lower level disruptive behavior that makes other students lives more difficult and diverts already scarce resources. Most special ed is behavioral, requiring special transportation, more para aides and entire teams of disciplinary staff who have to use everything from candy to time outs to modify behavior. The schools are being asked to resolve the issues for students who’ve had years of bad parenting, then watched by hovering parents, government and teams of activists blaming them for everything. It’s very rare for any media to actually listen to teachers and reflect reality…including this article. The educational system can’t solve social dysfunction and that’s what it’s demanded to do.

  11. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 11/20/2019 - 07:29 am.

    Having sent our 3 children, K-12 to the St Paul Public Schools, having worked in the district as a teacher and administrator and serving as a PTA president in SPPS, here are a few comments.
    1. The first person to propose new public schools outside the control of local boards was Dr. Kenneth Clark – the African American child psychologist who was co-author of the “doll test” used by the US Supreme Court in “Brown v Board of Education. IN Dec 1968, Harvard Ed Review published his essay urging creation of new public schools outside the control of district boards.
    2. shanker proposed creation of alternative schools under the control of local boards, approved by unions. There was nothing new about that. I was in the room when he proposed this in Mn.
    3. Chartered public schools in Milln have performance contracts. Failure to meet the terms of those contracts has resulted in dozens of these schools being closed. That’s far MORE accountability for results than most district schools have.
    4. Bill Wilson, first Af American to be elected to the St. Paul City Council and former Mn Commissioner of Human Rights, founded Higher Ground Academy (Charter) after decades of frustration with the local district. He pointed out in an “op ed” column for the Star Tribune that there’s a huge difference between being assigned to a school because of your race (as he was) and being given a choice among various public schools.
    4. There are many examples of innovations that have been developed in chartered public schools and adopted by district schools. This s ost is long enough. I’ll give examples in another post.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/20/2019 - 01:35 pm.

      Bill Wilson is the head of the state’s charter school organization, which is something you might have mentioned. His salary is paid by right-wing billionaires bent on destroying public education.

      Its this kind of dishonesty that makes me hate charter schools.

      • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 11/21/2019 - 12:58 am.

        cBill Wilson is not the director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools and never has been. His salary, like other public school educators is paid by Mn taxpayers.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/26/2019 - 10:14 am.

      Joe, you can brag about the closure of charter schools if you want, but the regulatory regime we have to create in order to monitor and close them is a completely unnecessary expense and diversion of limited resources. We can have “accountability” in regular public schools if THAT’S an objective.

      Your point regarding “accountability” would be interesting if you could demonstrate that this accountability you’re bragging about has actually improved American education. We know it has not.

  12. Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 11/20/2019 - 09:41 am.

    Why doesn’t MinnPost publish the test results of each St Paul elementary school and charter school along with the demographics? This can all be found on the Mn Report Card on the Department of Education website and would seem highly pertinent to this debate.

    The only reason why the liberal-run St Paul School Board & City Council are against Charters is because they’re non-Unionized and Education Minnesota is the DFL’s political machine.

    Modern Government -run education was conceived by Progressives to assimilate new immigrants as the state knew best how to make good Americans & productive citizens. It’s the same reason Catholics started their own private schools— which focus on a true liberal arts classical education. (Praise the Lord)

    Today’s progressives —recognizing the major demographic shift in the country and always with an eye on power— now tout “white privilege” over recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance & learning about Pilgrims and such. So the common good of assimilation is long gone and will never return in favor of celebrated multiculturalism. The embrace of “cultural competency” & diversity over uniformity makes for a much more difficult educational environment in public schools. Innovative magnets and charters are more nimble and can cater to all the little constituencies better and here we are.

    That’s one component of what’s going on and the other is that crazy self-interest thing & innate freedom seeking that’s a part of the American DNA. This used to mean sending Johnny down the street where he’d get a solid education and get to be at school with his friends in the neighborhood. Now the parents are asking why well-behaved Johnny should go to school where extra time away from learning is required to sit around in a “restorative justice circle”? The family quietly leaves & send their child to a charter or magnet school with like-minded parents who tend to produce like-minded kids.

    So the liberal answer is “Katy bar the doors!!!” Try it. They’ll simply move to Edina where liberal parents are now ruining that district.

    The class stratification is only getting worse here and all I know if that liberal policies are squarely to blame.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/20/2019 - 12:50 pm.

      We have over a decade results and research proving that charters are not out performing public counterparts. While charters have clearly been used as a union busting strategy, teacher’s unions are in no way the ONLY reason school boards and cities are challenging charters.

      It’s funny how conservative charter supporters prattle on about “accountability” but when we want to apply that concept to charter schools its always an attack on “choice” and “freedom”. When faith-based policy meets finite school budgets… these guys always want to opt for the faith over the budget. And so it goes with the “fiscal” conservatives who don’t care how much tax dollars go to charters.

      • Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 11/21/2019 - 07:47 am.

        I asked for Minn Post to provide the facts for St Paul public and public/charter elementary schools: results and demographics. Your response painting conservatism as the problem is both nonsensical and irrelevant to either my comment or this article. Perhaps MinnPost could also include the name of the Charter sponsor and whether are these awful conservatives you speak of.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/25/2019 - 01:00 pm.

          People like you are WHY I support the unions and public education as a whole. Those wonderful Catholic schools you treasure spent my father’s childhood trying to beat the left handedness and hearing disability out of him, to the point he quit religion all-together. Keep your beliefs away from my children, thank you very much.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/20/2019 - 12:42 pm.

    “The original hope was that charter schools would be fertile grounds for innovation in education, and those innovations, …”

    Thank you Ray Schoch.

    Another foundational myth behind the charter school movement was/is the idea that “innovation” will emerge from private sector entrepreneurs. The fact is that we HAD innovation all over the place in our public schools in the 1970s until conservatives and neoliberals killed during the “back to basics” era.

    In St. Louis Park for instance my high school had modular scheduling, open campus, and class options, that most school boards can’t even imagine today. Conservatives launched a wave of panic with bogus research claiming that American students were falling behind everyone else because we were wasting time on liberal innovations and experiments. Neoliberals bought into it and the “back to basics” movement swung into action effectively sweeping away the very notion of innovation in public schools.

    Back to Basics failed and all of the sudden what was needed was “innovation”. Since the conservative/neoliberal mind cannot imagine innovation outside a “market” environment they decided that instead of re-investing in and rebuilding the public system we’d dismantled, it would be better to create a “market” with charter schools and open enrollment. And so it went. And it has failed.

    The only model that has actually worked anywhere in the world is a public education model with public schools. Finland for instance is internationally recognized as the best education system in the world, and they don’t have charter schools. They got more “innovation” in one year than we have in decades, but they get that by taking their public education system seriously and making it work.

    What’s wrong with giving parents a choice? What’s wrong is educating your child isn’t the same process as buying a new oven. Costco may be a great place to buy light bulbs but it’s not an education model. The process of creating “choices” for parents doesn’t yield a better education for their children, it just diverts limited resources into marketing and branding exercises. It’s inefficient and wasteful.

    And as usual those who prattle on about “innovation” are typically the most clueless when it comes to understanding how it emerges from human activity. Innovation isn’t a “capitalist” discovery, it’s basic feature of human intellect. People are no more innovative in “markets” than the are in any other scenario, you just find innovation in markets environments because people are there. This is why the Roman’s managed to build aqueducts without private investors and stock markets. This how the printing press got invented despite the absence of a NYT’s best seller list. The idea that you’ll get more innovation our of an education market than a public education system is simply magical thinking, and ignorant.

    I think what St. Paul is dong is simply saying: “Hey, let’s put an end to the magical thinking and find out what really going on.” It makes perfect sense to put charters on hold because new charters create financial strains on the system without necessarily delivering clear advantages to students.

    • Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 11/21/2019 - 07:52 am.

      Again, blame conservatives for the failure of education of kids in St. Paul.

      MinnPost, should also include the complete dollar amount spent per student for each school in St Paul. Let’s discuss and debate the facts.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/21/2019 - 12:28 pm.

        Ms. Kihne,

        The information your requesting is available and it’s obviously been examined, although obviously not by you. The observation that charters are not outperforming public schools is a data driven observation. The fact that you’re asking Minnpost to provide that information doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and frankly Minnpost is not required to meet your demands.

        If you want to see this information you can look it up. Those of us who have looked at it aren’t required to back up re-trace our steps for your satisfaction.

        History is history, it’s not an attack on conservatives, it’s just what happened. If your truly interested in facts, that shouldn’t be a problem for you.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/21/2019 - 10:55 am.

      Although I graduated from a plain vanilla high school, I remember when the Minneapolis public schools offered elementary schools with options such as fundamentals (old-style), Montessori, free, open, and I forget what else.

      Unfortunately, there were a couple of years when a judge with more “logic” than sense decreed that schools had to have certain percentages of different racial groups and if a school deviated too much from those percentages, the school boundaries had to be redrawn. I often wondered if his efforts weren’t a passive-aggressive means of discrediting integration, and it was during those years that white flight accelerated.

      If you look at the reports of test scores in both public and charter schools, you find that overall, public schools in affluent areas and charter schools that attract affluent students do well. Public schools in poor areas and charter schools that attract students from poor areas do poorly.

      Funny how that works.

  14. Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/20/2019 - 01:24 pm.

    I’m not a big charter school fan. Charter schools can pick and choose their students and don’t take the disabled students that regular public schools take. And even then, most don’t do any better and the well known national ones resort to lying about results.

    But rather than a moratorium on new ones, I would rather see the less successful current ones be held accountable and be shut down, while the better ones (which may not exist yet) continue.

  15. Submitted by Andrea Touhey on 11/20/2019 - 08:43 pm.

    (If I missed this point in the conversation, my apologies.)

    Integration / segregation is a huge topic that I didn’t see fully fleshed out.
    Specifically, charter schools in Minnesota have different legal obligations for integration. That means that if families are seeking culturally homogenous experiences, the district is disadvantaged. A moratorium wouldn’t create a level playing field regarding integration requirements.

    To truly compare apples to apples, the law would need to expect the same of charters and district schools in terms of student composition and funding (charter schools are unable to raise funds through taxes).

    • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 11/21/2019 - 10:17 am.

      Andrea, are you proposing eliminating suburban districts where predominantly white families have chosen to send their children? Wealthy & many white families have always had educational options in Mn.

      District and chartered public school choice,along with PSEO, extended options to low income and families of color.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/21/2019 - 12:33 pm.


        You seem to think that providing “options” is more important than providing educations. Providing options is not the same as providing education, and the resources devoted to options simply for sake of having options, come at the expense of education. This is the problem with using consumer mentalities to design education models.

      • Submitted by Andrea Touhey on 11/21/2019 - 06:27 pm.


        That is far from what I am saying. I am saying that charter schools and district schools in Minnesota operate under different legal constraints. There are large and growing charter schools in Saint Paul that are culturally homogenous — Higher Ground and Hmong College Prep, for example. District schools, from my understanding of the law, are required to have more balanced demographics (please let me know if I am wrong on this).

        1. If families are leaning towards self-segregation, and there is not a strong case being made for the merits of integration, then charters schools will have the advantage with regards to student composition and cultural programming.

        2. The constraints are reversed for funding. Here, charter schools have more limitations because they are unable to raise taxes to fund infrastructure.

        A moratorium of charter schools in Saint Paul will address neither of these two factors – integration requirements or the ability to impose a tax, which each provide a major advantage. Therefore, the moratorium will not allow a means for the District to directly address its competitive weakness, making the moratorium a futile — and yes, protectionist, move.

        What I would love to see is the District embrace its own advantages. Instead of investing time and energy in a moratorium, I would prefer the District focus on building and investing others in its core strengths (of which it has many). SPPS students would be better served in the immediate future, and in the long run a stronger SPPS would attract more students.

        – Andrea

        p.s. It has been awhile since I looked at the data. Last I was aware, school choice created more fluid enrollment patterns between traditional districts. As a result, suburban districts were becoming more diverse in terms of geography, income, and race. Again, let me know if I am in error.

  16. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 11/21/2019 - 10:14 am.

    Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) is a great example of a school choice program that has encouraged districts to improve their programs – there has been a dramatic expansion of college in the schools, AP, and IB courses in districts since PSEO was adopted in 1985. Research shows PSEO and CIS have helped encourage many low income youngsters & students of color to graduate and continue their education.

    Like district school choice, PSEO and charters have empowered educators and families – helping more students find a learning environment that works well for them.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 11/21/2019 - 04:30 pm.

      PSEO does offer some wonderful opportunities to students. However, as a former teacher at a a twin cities high school, PSEO was not without issues. When students enroll in PSEO, the high school that student attended doesnt receive funding for that child. That is a significant lots of revenue which can’t be replaced. School funding is antiquated and needs to be overhauled. For once I agree with the governor on this issue.

      • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 11/25/2019 - 11:24 am.

        Why would a high school receive funding for a PSEO student if that student isn’t spending any time on campus? High schools don’t get funding for students who have graduated and left, is that an issue as well?

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 11/21/2019 - 04:36 pm.

      This is flagrantly wrong. For a former teacher and administrator, I expect better. I suggest you read about charters in New Orleans post-Katrina, and Newark after it received the Zuckerberg grant. Choice destroyed the school system and just left more students in a stultified environment.

      Even in PSEO is expanded, or other similar programs, it leaves a sizable have of students behind. This options don’t for every student.

      • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 11/23/2019 - 01:04 am.

        David, many districts have responded to PSEO by offering additional college in the schools, AP, or IB courses. That’s great. Also PSEO has expanded to include career/technical course, as well as more traditional academic courses.

        A higher percentage of Mn students are graduating, and Mn’s graduation gap between students of different races is closing, in part because the state s offering more options.

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 11/23/2019 - 08:14 am.

          That’s a Minnesota Department of Education answer, and quire devoid of sympathy for all students. The same argument is used for GDP. If GDP is going up, everyone must be doing well. That’s wrong, look no further than growing inequality. Let’s take for example, the idea of summer school. I taught it for quite a few summers. This is simply a waste of taxpayer dollars so students can go through an simplified class in which they learn nothing, gain credits, become bitter and apathetic towards school, and hopefully graduate. So yes, that futile, Sisyphean task raises graduation rates, but what does it really do?

          If we really cared about teaching and learning, it would start with the state and districts. Read the grade-by-grade standards for math, literature, etc. It is nothing more than an exercise in stupidity and conformity. The standards are thin, and devoid of critical thought. The education standards should be based not on what’s covered, but what student’s discover. That’s how innovation and human potential are maximized.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/26/2019 - 09:35 am.

            David, to the extent that the criticisms your making are legitimate, the charter movement has done nothing but exacerbate the problems you describe.

            Funding for educations has been a mess for decades because Republican legislators and governors have been focused on attacking public school teachers and their union. When not attacking the teachers, they’re attacking and politicizing the curriculum. When not attacking the teachers and the curriculum, they’re diverting resources to “alternatives” and vouchers, and “choices”. Conservative hostility to the very idea of public education goes all the back to 1809 and Thomas Jefferson. The biggest mistake American liberals ever made was joining the conservative attack on public schools. So yes, it’s a mess. You can’t be engaged in trying to dismantle something while trying to improve it at the same time.

  17. Submitted by Terry Frawley on 11/25/2019 - 10:16 am.

    The St. Paul Public School District graduated 74.9% of eligible students in 2018. Eighteen school districts graduated 100%, and eighty-four graduated over 96%.
    It is little wonder why parents are seeking alternatives. To understand the problem, you have to go to the foundation of education. Virtually, all parties agree that kindergarten readiness is the best predictor of success in school. If a district has a large immigrant population, the district has to teach the children English prior to educating them. If poverty is prevalent in a district, a whole different set of challenges occur. Put both of those together, and you have a receipt for failure.
    It is difficult to pass judgment on a school district without this information. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has spent millions to gather these statistics, they are not usable, according to the Legislative Auditor. Perhaps Mayor Melvin Carter III can help the citizens of St. Paul understand those issues, as this was his area of responsibility at MDE, as the Director of the Early Learning Services Division.
    There are predictable outcomes with Charter/Private Schools. It is crucial to understand Kindergarten Readiness. Although there are no Minnesota statistics the US Department of Education did report that only 40% of children were ready. If we had that stat to compare between public and charter schools, we would have many answers. However, it is predictable the more engaged family is taking advantage of charter schools.
    Many universities have identified the cause of the education gap is poverty. It is also predictable that Charter Schools attract more affluent families.
    There is a cost of educating a child, and it is not the same for every child. The kids that are ready for school have the lowest cost. Children that have special needs are the highest cost.
    The growth of charter schools will continue to attract the lowest cost of students leaving public schools to deal with the highest cost students. As this trend continues public schools will go bankrupt. Charter schools eventually cause both racial and economic segregation.
    The solution per scientists is educating new families and high-quality daycare.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/25/2019 - 11:03 am.

      “The St. Paul Public School District graduated 74.9% of eligible students in 2018. Eighteen school districts graduated 100%, and eighty-four graduated over 96%.
      It is little wonder why parents are seeking alternatives.”

      Charter schools have not improved those graduation rates, nor have they narrowed basic skills gaps. Yes, you need study underlying the causes of these rates and make improvements and adjustments. The “market” model that charter’s represent has failed. You will find that public school systems with far fewer if any charters have much better rates.

      • Submitted by Terry Frawley on 11/27/2019 - 01:29 pm.

        Paul, I don’t think these stats apply to your argument. Graduation rates are published by district and charter schools differently. I got my information from (
        I would believe that graduation rates at Charter School’s are higher simply because of families that are more engaged and the fact that Charter School isn’t required to take all students.

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/26/2019 - 09:24 am.

    I guess whenever you look at these charter champions at this point you can’t help but notice the huge disconnect between their ideology and reality.

    On one hand they all point to the failing nature of the school district while simultaneously claiming to have “saved’ the district from failure with their innovations and choices. If charters are and have been the saviors they claim to be, why is the district still the mess they claim it to be? Since charters aren’t actually outperforming their “traditional” counterparts the demand for more charters is just doubling down on the magic.

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