Providing strong options in the state, Minnesota’s charter law ranked #1

Joe Nathan
ECM Publishers, Inc. Columnist

Minnesota educators, students, parents and policy-makers received another honor last week: the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked our state’s charter law as number one in the country. Thanks to a strong law, suburban and rural, as well as urban Minnesota families have high quality options, including district and charter schools.

Most Minnesota families continue using district public schools. But research by our Center found that over the last decade, the number of Minnesota students enrolled in charters increased by almost 30,000, while the number of students attending district schools declined by more than 40,000 students.

Whether their preference is a Montessori elementary, or junior-senior high, a classical academy that teaches Latin, an arts-focused high school, a project based school promoting “hands-on” learning, Chinese immersion, or an on-line school, Minnesota’s charter law has helped create new options for families throughout the state.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius have wisely recommended that district and charters spend more time learning from each other, and less time debating which is better, district or charter public schools. Both kinds of public schools vary widely.

Here are examples of what Minnesota’s charter law has helped produce:

Lakes International in Forest Lake has been cited as a “Reward” school by the Minnesota Department of Education. That means it’s among Minnesota’s highest performing public schools serving some low as well as middle-income families.  Cam Hedland, director of Lakes International, wrote, “While being ranked #1 is a fine accomplishment for our state, we echo the sentiments of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the organization conducting the study, that equitable funding is not available for facilities and capital funding, even here in Minnesota.  Equitable funding for students is still an issue in this state as well.” The Forest Lake School district has just received an award from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School for its collaboration with Lakes International

Tracy Quarnstrom directs of Trio-Wolf Creek Charter based in Chisago Lakes. This is one of several “on-line” charters that are available to Minnesota families.  She told me that the number one ranking  “shows the commitment of many in the charter school arena over the past 20 years to make Minnesota a state where charter schools thrive. The collaboration between educators and lawmakers should be a model to be followed in other educational topics presented at the capital this session. All involved in this movement should be proud of their efforts … ”

Minnesota New Country in Henderson offers a “project-based” hand on approach that attracts 7th-12th graders from more than 30 miles.

Eagle Ridge Academy, a K-12 charter in Eden Prairie provides a “classical” education for families, as well as a single building to which families can send all their children, if they choose to do so.

Partnership Academy in Richfield works with mostly Spanish-speaking students and families, in a smaller setting than area public schools.

Minnesota is learning that district and charter public schools, like colleges and universities, can simultaneously compete and cooperate.  It’s not one or the other.  It can be both.    Our Center runs several programs in which district and charter leaders and teachers are learning with and from each other.

While “pleased” that Minnesota’s ranked number one, Al Fan, director of the Minnesota based Charter School Partners commented, “We must do a better job of utilizing the charter model to create great schools for all Minnesota kids.” Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools believes “Our law is a dynamic document that we work to refine as the charter school movement evolves, and strives to achieve the purposes and goals of public charter schools.” His organization provides a list and map, plus other information about charters at http://www.mncharterschools.org/directories/

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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