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Freedom Comes at Price For Minn. Charters, Study Says

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Minnesota's charter schools--trailblazers in a national reform experiment--have found freedom, but not without some sacrifices.

The schools often struggle with funding and transportation problems and tense relations with local school boards, a report by the state House of Representatives' research department has found.

The study, released last month, paints a mixed picture of the schools: They have more autonomy than traditional schools, but lose some of the financial security and other support that comes from close ties to a district.

Minnesota lawmakers approved the nation's first charter-school legislation in 1991. Several other states followed their lead, and the schools have cropped up throughout the country.

The state is now home to 14 charter schools, started by groups of individuals--usually teachers. The schools operate within the existing public school system, but have almost total control over their missions, budgets, and administrations.

Supporters say charters are more effective than other public schools because they are free from many state regulations that discourage innovation.

The concept has been controversial, however, and some educators said they believe the report might signal a move to reconsider the legislation. Some claimed that members of the House are among the bill's harshest critics.

"I think this [study] makes a number of important points, but it needs to be examined as a political document," said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. The center has conducted research supporting the concept and has helped some groups apply for charters.

Money Matters

But the study was not intended to judge the success or failure of the schools, Kathy Novak, an analyst with the legislature's research department, said.

It is too early to do that, she said. "But there is a tension around the idea that schools need to be more accountable if they are receiving public dollars," she added.

Over the past four years, local school boards have sponsored 13 of 21 charter proposals and turned down eight, the report said. Two groups that were rejected appealed to the state board, which agreed to sponsor one of them.

The researchers studied all the schools that had opened and others that had been proposed. They reviewed state data and local documents on the schools and visited the sites.

They found that the schools had carved a niche in their districts by offering alternative curricula, smaller classes, and a committed staff.

But some schools also had trouble raising money for facilities or such other needs as teachers' salaries and classroom materials, the report added.

Unlike other public schools, the charters cannot use bonds or tax levies to boost their revenues.

Some boards were also concerned that the schools would drain money from their local districts' budgets. School officials often said they feared they would lose the revenue associated with district students who chose to attend charters.

Such other issues as liability and elitism--some districts feared the charters would lure the best pupils in the area--also strained relations between the schools and their sponsors.

Special Needs

In some cases, the groups launching charter schools were also overwhelmed by their duties.

The report said teachers could not always anticipate the planning required to handle the day-to-day operations of the school, which runs much like a business.

More specific problems were also identified.

The need to coordinate students' schedules posed problems in providing transportation and other services; schools were not always prepared to accommodate the special-needs students they often target; and federal and state funding requirements also created headaches.

Over all, the authors concluded, the state could minimize some of the charter schools' difficulties by providing start-up funding and money for facilities. State officials might also reconsider how much freedom the schools should have, and how the sites should be held accountable, they said.

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