New Arrangements: A Matter Of Choice

By Lynn Olson — November 25, 1992 15 min read

This article is the fifth in an occasional series.

By Lynn Olson

ST. PAUL--To many of the former dropouts here, City Academy represents their last best hope at an education. But to observers in and outside the state, this small alternative program, housed in a local recreation center, represents much more: A testing ground for what happens when teachers are given the legal authority to create their own schools, hire and fire their colleagues, and spend their money as they see fit.

Last year, Minnesota became the first state to pass a “charter schools’’ law that enables groups of licensed teachers to create independent public schools under a contract with a local school board.

To insure their autonomy, such schools are legally incorporated entities: A school board maintains accountability by negotiating the outcomes a charter must meet, but it cannot interfere in its day-to-day practices.

The schools must meet the performance standards established in their charters to retain their contracts. But they are free from most state and local regulations.

General revenues follow a student to the school, with, in most cases, a resulting loss in funds for the student’s home district.

City Academy is the first such legally incorporated charter school up and running in the nation. But the idea has caught on well beyond Minnesota’s borders.

In September, California enacted a similar charter-schools law. At least half a dozen other states--including Connecticut, Florida, and Wisconsin--as well as a handful of districts are considering the idea. Governors from both political parties and President-elect Bill Clinton have endorsed the concept.

What makes charter schools so attractive is their potential to introduce diversity and competition into the public school system without resorting to vouchers or private-sector alternatives.

In addition, because charter schools are legally separate organizations, their fragile attempts at innovation are protected from the pressures of the larger system.

“I view charter schools as an incentive to enhance public education,’' said State Sen. Ember D. Reichgott, a co-sponsor of the Minnesota law. “I view vouchers as an incentive to abandon the public schools.’'

‘Our Members Were Incensed’

But if the idea of charter schools has caught on nationally, its implementation has faced a rocky road in Minnesota.

The legislation was watered down, even before it was passed, in response to the demands of education groups.

The original bill would have enabled anyone to start a charter school; now, the option is limited to licensed teachers. The number of charter schools was capped at eight statewide--hardly a competitive challenge to the more than 1,500 public schools in the state.

Local school boards also were given the sole authority to grant charters, subject to approval of the state board of education. There is no appeals process for those whose proposals are denied.

Even after making such compromises, Ms. Reichgott was not endorsed by either the Minnesota Federation of Teachers or the Minnesota Education Association in her successful bid for re-election this month.

Sandra Peterson, the M.F.T. president, said her members view charter schools as privatization. “Our members were incensed,’' she said, “and they would not let us endorse [Senator Reichgott] strictly on this issue.’'

The biggest sticking point for the unions is that teachers in charter schools are not part of a district’s collective-bargaining unit, although unions can go out and organize them.

“We would probably have less resistance to the whole charter-schools notion if the collective-bargaining process were intact,’' Ms. Peterson said.

So far, only four charters have been approved statewide.

A local school board approved a fifth, but the state rejected it. And local boards have turned down at least seven other proposals.

‘Built-in Contradiction’

Advocates of the charters attribute the slow start to what they view as a “built-in contradication’’ in the law: The same school boards that stand to lose money under the proposals are put in charge of approving them.

“From the perspective of a local school district, a charter is pretty threatening,’' said John M. Maas, the former executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, “because you’ve got people saying, ‘We can do it better than we’re doing it ... and we can do better with the same resources or less.’ ''

Peggy O. Hunter, the enrollment-options coordinator for the state, offered an even blunter assessment of what motivates school districts. “The money,’' she charged, “is more important to them than the kids.’'

Minnesota offers a particularly fertile ground for testing the charter-schools concept. Since 1973, the Minneapolis school district has contracted with a number of private, nonprofit programs to provide alternative education for students who have failed in traditional settings.

In 1985, the state passed a “postsecondary options’’ law that enables 11th and 12th graders to take college courses for credit, using state school aid to pay for it.

A separate program, enacted in 1987, permits certain groups of “at risk’’ students ages 12 to 21 to complete their education at any public high school or postsecondary institution in the state. And by 1988, the state had made it possible for students anywhere in Minnesota to cross district lines to choose a public school.

But the authors of these laws quickly ran into a problem: the limited supply of options among the public schools. “It just wasn’t enough to provide students more access to choices,’' said Senator Reichgott, “if there were not many choices to access.’'

‘Why Can’t We Do This?’

Charter schools are widely viewed as a solution to that dilemma: freeing up the supply side of the equation by giving teachers who think they have a better idea the ability to create programs parallel to the existing public schools.

What is more, charter schools are not necessarily distinct buildings. Any number of charter schools could coexist in the same building; a charter school could also occupy more buildings than one.

But skeptics question whether many of the proposals offered to date represent true reform.

Bluffview Montessori School, the first charter school to be approved in the state, had already operated as a private school for three years before opting to go public. Several of the rejected proposals, such as those from the Rapidan and Emily school districts, began as attempts to prevent small, rural schools from closing.

“The concept of innovation, I think, is debatable,’' said Richard J. Anderson, the executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.

At the same time, many administrators wonder why their districts need the charter-schools program to undertake innovations.

Last spring, the Minneapolis school board rejected a proposal to create a charter school for young children with learning disabilities. The district subsequently contracted with the program to operate as a private alternative school, which receives less funding per pupil and operates under closer district scrutiny than it would if it were chartered.

Bob Jibben, the director of alternative programs for the district, said: “I think in Minneapolis, the question that’s been asked is, ‘Why can’t we do this?’ We’re a big district. We’re fully capable of educating these kids. Why should we turn this over to someone else?’'

Roadblocks in System

But advocates of charter schools counter that it is the inability or unwillingness of large education bureaucracies to reform that has created the need for charters.

“This provides for us the ability to change the education system that hasn’t allowed change to happen,’' argued Scott Haskins, a parent and the co-chairman of the Metro Deaf School, a charter school for deaf and hard-of-hearing children. The school, scheduled to open in 1993, will offer all subjects in American Sign Language.

Even when districts permit innovations to occur, charter advocates contend, the initiatives are rarely able to sustain or replicate themselves over time.

The Mounds View Area Learning Center, an alternative school in a suburban area just north of St. Paul, offers an example of what happens to educational mavericks. The school’s proposal for a charter was rejected by the Mounds View school board last spring by a 4-to-3 vote.

When John Sedey founded the school in 1988, he recalled, he was told he had the freedom to experiment. He located the school in an office building and operated it 12 hours a day, six days a week, 12 months a year. He hired a diverse staff, not just certified teachers. He provided health and social services in the school. And he tailored instruction to meet the needs of each student.

But Mr. Sedey ran headlong into district practices. When he wanted extra days for staff development or to place his employees on a 12-month contract, he was told such changes would be setting a “dangerous precedent,’' he said.

“My superintendent told me that I was too passionate about my program,’' Mr. Sedey said. “Eventually, what happens is you get out with your change a little too far, and the institution has got to suck you back in.’'

In January, Mr. Sedey was notified that he would be transferred to district headquarters against his will. Teachers then filed an unsuccessful bid for a charter school. Mr. Sedey has been on sabbatical since September.

Financial Disincentive

“Bureaucracies,’' said Don Daly, one of the teachers at the Mounds View school, “are set up to serve the adults that run them. And in the end, the kids get lost in the process.’'

Burton M. Nygren, the superintendent of the Mounds View district, said the board’s decision against approving the school’s charter application came down to finances. The proposed charter would have cost the district some $150,000 in state aid, he calculated, and would not have offered students anything they were not getting at the existing school.

It also would have enabled nontenured teachers at the school to retain their jobs when tenured teachers elsewhere in the district were being laid off because of budget cuts.

Mr. Nygren, who said he likes the “concept’’ of charter schools, cautioned, “If they don’t change the law, with this fiscal disincentive, I don’t know of any board that’s going to approve these things.’'

The extent to which charters enable teachers to focus on the needs of students can be seen clearly at City Academy. The setting for the school is far from august. The program shares its space with a day-care center. Students take some classes at folding tables in the gym and others in a room that houses pint-sized tables and chairs.

The program is small by choice, with just over 30 students. Four licensed teachers are assisted by two volunteers and two teachers’ aides.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, students attend school from 8 A.M. to 1:30 P.M., during which time they rotate between three 1 1/2-hour blocks of English/social studies; mathematics/science; and health/fitness. Students also participate in a “communications’’ class, a small group of students and a teacher who will stay together throughout their years at the school to focus on more personal and social problems.

The teachers have worked hard to create a sense of community for students who were lost in the larger public schools and even in existing alternative schools. Most classes have no more than five students. It is not uncommon for teachers to call students at night or to visit their homes. The students set the rules for school conduct and discipline.

Learning is self-paced, based on individual objectives for each student, although all students must meet certain minimum competencies in order to graduate. Because the students’ performance determines whether City Academy will get its contract renewed, the incentive to focus on the students is strong.

‘We Are the School Board’

So far, the effort seems to be paying off.

One day recently, Ira, a student at City Academy, described the last program he attended as “day care for big kids. ... I wasn’t learning nothing.’'

“This is smaller,’' he said. “You kind of go along at your own pace. You can do as little, or as much, as you want.’'

Laurens, another student, said, “The other schools, I’d get into trouble, fighting, wanting to run the school.’' At City Academy, he explained, “everybody runs the school. We don’t have a school board. We are the school board.’'

“You don’t feel like just another student,’' he added. “In a regular high school, if you need something, or you have a problem, you are on a waiting list.’'

Terry Kraabel, one of the teachers who founded the school, said City Academy has been able to keep classes small only because the student revenues flow directly to the school and administrative costs are minimized.

“That’s the biggest difference with a charter school,’' said Milo J. Cutter, another of the school’s founders. “You don’t have to feed the bureaucracy.’'

The school operates on a budget of $211,000. Of that, $60,000 is donated by a private utility, the Northern States Power Company, and $48,000 comes from a state grant for crime and drug prevention. The remaining money comes in the form of state aid, about $4,000 per student.

The school has decided to purchase health and counseling services on its own, rather than through the district.

On Thursdays, students spend the day on enrichment activities, such as music, art, and computers. On Tuesdays, they go into the community.

Some work at Habitat for Humanity, rehabilitating housing; others study pottery under a master craftsman. A few are learning how the local science museum operates from the ground up. The community-based experiences rotate every eight weeks, giving students a chance to use the city as a learning site.

“I can’t picture this school functioning very well within the district,’' Ms. Cutter said, “unless you could preserve the teaching unit.’'

All of the teachers are at City Academy because they want to be. The same is true for students.

Not a Threat

But City Academy also highlights the glaring realities about charter schools to date. With just 30-odd students, the program is hardly accessible--much less a threat--to anyone.

Moreover, like most of the other charter proposals that have been accepted, City Academy serves a special population--and one that the local district had already conceded it could not serve. The program has agreed only to accept those students who are not enrolled in any educational program and have at least attempted to participate in another alternative school.

“I’m sure that was probably the main reason that we were given a charter,’' Mr. Kraabel said.

Ms. Cutter joked: “ ‘O.K., well, they aren’t going to take them out of our classrooms, so it won’t be a per-pupil loss.’ ''

Similarly, the Forest Lake school board, which approved the charter for the Metro Deaf school, has only eight hearing-impaired students in the entire district.

“It was truly a matter of dollars and cents,’' Mr. Haskins, the school’s co-chairman, asserted. “ ‘Well, gee, there are only eight kids who are hearing-impaired, that’s no big deal.’ ''

Signs of Competition

To many educators, it is best if charter schools are kept that way: designed to serve the children who slip through the cracks of the system; an expansion, rather than a threat, to the existing marketplace.

But if such schools are to serve a larger purpose, advocates say, they must eventually take on the needs of the general student population.

Ted Kolderie, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Studies in Minnesota and one of the founders of the charter-schools movement, said: “I think a real test will come when some charter proposals are built, not around characteristics of kids ... but around some kind of curricular or pedagogical area. Then it would come into focus, in terms of innovation.’'

Already, supporters say, the pressure of competition is forcing some Minnesota districts to change.

In the Toivola-Meadowlands district, where a K-12 charter school is scheduled to open next year, “the district has implemented things that we wanted done in our [charter] school rapidly,’' said Richard Raich, one of the school’s founders. The changes include team teaching, block scheduling, and provisions for heightened parent involvement.

Parents in Forest Lake had been pushing to create a public Montessori program for two years. But administrators claimed the program would be too expensive and cited problems ranging from transportation costs to teacher training.

One month after the parents submitted a charter proposal to the school board, “we had answers to all the obstacles that were out there,’' Sandy Chaussee, one of the parents, said. The school district now operates a Montessori alternative.

Something To Prove

But whether the charter idea can leverage widespread improvements in the larger system remains to be seen. Its very strength--the ability to try out reforms on a manageable scale--may also be its weakness.

The school-by-school model for reform, on which charters are based, has never proven particularly powerful. Even among boosters of the idea, few envision a day when every school would be a “charter’’ school.

“It’s a lot like swimming the mile,’' said Ms. Cutter of City Academy. “The ones that do it are going to feel awfully good once they do it, but I don’t think many are going to take it on.’'

The incentives for teachers to come up with charter proposals are minimal. The Minnesota law requires that charter schools be operated by nonprofit organizations or co-operatives, limiting their commercial appeal. There are no start-up funds for planning or school buildings.

And while the hope is that the mainline system will be able to pick up and learn from the charter schools’ experiences, there is no formal mechanism for doing so.

Indeed, Curman Gaines, the superintendent of the St. Paul school district, argues that, if existing public schools are expected to compete with charter schools on an equal footing, they should be deregulated first.

“If you’re going to use charter schools to compare me with,’' he said, “then I want to be on the same level field.’'

Senator Reichgott and her colleague in the House, State Rep. Becky Kelso, have expressed an interest in revising the legislation.

They would like to do away with the dual-approval process that requires a charter school to gain the nod of both a local school board and the state. They would also like the state board to be able to grant charters to proposals that have been rejected by school districts.

A coalition of some 60 charter-schools advocates, known as the Minnesota Charter Schools Network, has incorporated to work for such changes. But there is little support for the changes among the education establishment.

“My greatest fear,’' Ms. Kelso said, “is that we’re going to be pushed to make a declaration of success or failure on Minnesota’s charter-schools legislation too soon.’'

“I feel we have something to prove,’' she added, “that public schools really can be flexible. And that we are capable of opening the public school system up.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as New Arrangements: A Matter Of Choice