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A Dissenting Voice: Are Charter Schools Such a Boon?

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Charter schools, currently being sold by some as the cure-all for an education system they think is sorely in need of reform, may turn out to be the biggest boondoggle since New Coke.

In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to enact legislation allowing for charter schools--public schools that proponents said would be creative because they would be free from most of the statutes and rules that apply to regular public school districts. In theory, this "freedom'' would permit teachers to use different teaching methods and gauge learning using different forms of
measurement. In fact, experience shows another outcome entirely.

A charter school approved in Minnesota's St. Louis County will keep a small rural school open even though it was slated for closing. District officials determined that its size makes it economically impossible to offer a broad, high-quality curriculum to students. Another charter school was proposed in Winona, Minn., to turn a private Montessori school into a public school, siphoning public money to a previously nonpublic institution. Parents in other districts are considering applying for charters for some of these same reasons.

These examples are a far cry from the predictions of charter-school supporters that the new schools would be "innovative'' and "reach out to groups not now being served'' by public schools. They do not propose any method of teaching that is new and different from those already used in public school classrooms throughout Minnesota. And the chance that these schools will drain students and state aid from local public school districts is very real.

The Minnesota Department of Education says each charter school "is in charge of its own destiny.'' State funds, including general student aid, special-education funds, capital-expenditure funds, and other grants and revenue will go directly from the state to the charter school. Yet, once it is approved, a charter school can exist for up to three years merely by submitting an annual report that demonstrates that it satisfies the mission set forth in the contract between the school board sponsor and the charter board.

St. Louis County's Toivola-Meadowlands school will be purchased by the township. Is the town now liable for injuries sustained on school premises? Who is held accountable if student test scores drop? Winona's Bluffview Montessori School has operated as a private school for 24 years. When a state lawmaker called this "a new kind of public school,'' did she really believe that public education would be provided, or is this creating an elite academy with public funds?

The charter-school concept ignores one of the most basic facts about Minnesota public schools: They already permit--even encourage--innovations. In fact, Minnesota's public schools are known for their innovation. Teachers and parents in Cyrus, Minn., created a math, science, and technology magnet school in 1989, two years before charter-school legislation was even proposed. Educators, parents, and community members in Thief River Falls, Minn., are using a grant from the Minnesota Education Association to explore ways to increase the effectiveness of their schools. Money from the National Education Association is funding initiatives to restructure schools and develop and deliver research-based instruction in Chaska, Minn. And the Rochester, Minn., school district was given a waiver from state regulations to develop programs leading to licensure for the district's middle-school teachers.

Site-based decisionmaking, a collaborative process for problem-solving and decisionmaking, is becoming a part of the Minnesota public school landscape, emphasizing positive, creative changes in teaching and learning practices and in school administration.

It may be too early to reach conclusions about what effects charter schools will have on Minnesota's public school system. But the pattern of supporting private schools and sustaining schools that are too small to thrive on their own does not bode well for the majority of students in our state.

We continue to believe that charter schools drain state resources and attempt to duplicate the efforts that are currently under way in many existing districts. Using the charter-school concept to do an end-run around public schools creates unnecessary bureaucracy and expends vast amounts of energy in an educational experiment that has no proven track record.

In the end, one thing is clear: Charter schools are just plain bad public policy.

Robert E. Astrup is president of the Minnesota Education Association.

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