Minnesota charter schools grow from about 10K to 39K in 10 years, nationally about 2 million now attend charters

Dec 16, 2011 by

Joe Nathan – From about 10,000 students to about 39,000, from 100 to more than 2 million. Those are a few of the statistics that show how Minnesota is a part of one of the most intriguing educational reforms in the US…. the charter public school movement.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College

Many students are successful in district public schools. Other students and their families have found considerable success in charter public schools.

Families select charters for various reasons. They might like the fact that Minnesota charters generally are smaller than district public schools. Some like having a chance for elementary students to learn a second language, whether it’s German, Spanish, or Chinese. They might like the idea of a Montessori junior-senior high school, an Arts Focused High School, or one that emphasizes Agriculture. These are just a few examples of Minnesota Charters.

Minnesota charter schools have developed in rural, suburban and urban areas. You can find them, for example, in Apple Valley, Bloomington, Brainerd, Coon Rapids, Dakota, Duluth, Elk River, Faribault, Forest Lake, Naytawash, Otsego, Ramsey, Richfield, Ridgeway, Rochester, West St. Paul and Winona, as well as the Twin Cities.

Back to the numbers…10 years ago, the number of students attending charter public schools was about 10,000, when total K-12 enrollment in Minnesota was about 841,000.

Based on phone calls and emails to Minnesota’s charter public schools last week, our organization learned that about 39,000 students are attending Minnesota charters this fall. Meanwhile, according to the Minnesota Department of Education statistics, the number of students attending district public schools declined slightly in the last decade (through the 2010-11 school year). It’s about 800,000. So the vast majority of Minnesota students remain in district public schools as the number of charter students grows.

The charter idea helped encourage the Forest Lake district to offer a free district Montessori elementary school option. That’s after the district school board decided not to open such a Montessori option that parents were requesting. The board changed its mind, recognizing it could retain students – and possibly attract additional young people. That’s an example of how offering a charter option can help a district improve itself.

Another intriguing response came recently from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Lynn Nordgren, the MFT president, wrote to her members that despite their concerns, “charter schools are not going away… It is time to “get in the game”.

MFT is the first teachers’ union in the country to create a group that has received state approval to authorize charter public schools. Authorizers receive applications for new schools from educators, parents and others, decide which ones to approve, and monitor the performance of the schools they approve. An authorizer also decides whether to renew a charter school’s contact, based on their performance and progress toward agreed upon goals.

A recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimated that this fall more than 2 million students are attending charters. That’s up from fewer than 100 students who attended the first school to function in 1992 as a charter, City Academy in St. Paul.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius have urged that we learn from outstanding charters and district schools. They’re right. It’s not just about how many students are attending any kind of school. It’s about how well the students are doing.

The now 20 year-old charter movement has given families new options, and educators more from which to learn.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. Reactions welcome, jnathan@macalester.edu

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