widely known as the land of 10,000 lakes - actually, there
are more than 10,000.
But the state, which was the first in the nation to pass
a charter school law in 1991, could also be described as the land of
school choice. Beyond charters, Minnesota is also home to the
nation’s first comprehensive open
law, dating back to the late 1980s, which allows K-12 students to
attend any public school in a district of their choice, provided
there is space in the host district.
abundance of lakes covering the state was the result of a natural
process, it would be hard to describe the rapid growth of charter
schools and school choice in the North Star State as some sort of
natural occurrence, driven solely by parents and teachers hungry for
alternative learning environments. But Minnesota - as well as many
and the federal
- is awakening to another approach to school improvement that is
expanding, from the ground up, in a more natural way: the
community schools model.
In contrast to
charter schools and other market-based approaches to school
improvement, full-service community schools offer a holistic approach
to education that is about lifting up students and the communities
they live in, rather than pitting schools against one another in the
interest of greater choice and competition.
Charters and Choice?
of Minnesota’s groundbreaking charter school legislation refers
to it as an attempt to fund “results-oriented, student-centered
public schools.” This is an optimistic assessment of the
Minnesota law that touches on the educational aspirations that the
charter schools system carries, but it entirely sidesteps another
important aspect of the system: the connection between charter
schools and the privatization
of public education.
push to privatize the nation’s public school system has been
made possible in large part by the federal government. In the 1990s,
the Clinton administration readily embraced
the concept of school choice by promising to close the “worst
performing schools,” among other things, while seeking millions
in expansion funds
for the growing charter school sector. These efforts snowballed under
former President George W. Bush, who funneled
more than $1 billion toward supporting charter schools, often at the
expense of public school districts.
President Barack Obama’s administration then continued along
this path by pumping billions
of additional taxpayer dollars into the hands of charter school
operators around the country, thanks to the pro-school choice efforts
by Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne
philanthropic organizations, including the Walton
and the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation,
also jumped aboard the school choice train, directing
millions of dollars toward the privatization of public education in
the United States. The interests of both philanthropists and the
federal government were most clearly united under former President
Donald Trump’s leadership when billionaire school choice
Betsy DeVos became the secretary of education.
“first in the nation” charter school law also opened the
door to charter school legislation in other states. Since the
2005-2006 school year, charter school enrollment
has more than tripled; today, more than 3 million students
attend such schools across the country. Only a handful of small,
less-populated states, such as Nebraska, Vermont, and North and South
Dakota, do not allow charter
there are currently 180
privately run, publicly funded charter schools, enrolling more than
60,000 students in grades K-12.
open enrollment policies have exploded since Minnesota pioneered that
option, and now nearly
offer some sort of intra- and inter-district transfer options.
models built around competition and choice have led to greater
disruption in cities such as New
and Chicago, where former Mayor Rahm Emanuel oversaw the shuttering
of dozens of neighborhood schools amid a boom in the local charter
the Saint Paul Public Schools district has been left gasping for air
as school choice schemes continue to wreak havoc on the district’s
and, subsequently, its finances.
is one of the largest and most diverse
in the state, if not the nation, with approximately 35,000 students
representing a wide array of racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Two-thirds of the district’s students
live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and almost
300 students in the district are listed as being homeless.
As a result of
more school choice, in 2017, 14,000
school-age children living in the city were not enrolled in the Saint
Paul Public Schools district. Instead, they either attended a charter
school in or near the city or chose to open-enroll into a neighboring
Just two years
later, in 2019, the exodus of families had risen
to more than 16,000. Today, more than one-third
of all students living in Saint Paul does not attend Saint Paul
Public Schools, leaving the district in a constant state of
lagging enrollment numbers can be attributed to shrinking birthrates
and “a rise in school choice options,” according to a
reporter Anthony Lonetree.
consequence of shrinking enrollments, district officials recently
outlined a reorganization proposal
that calls for the closure of eight schools by the fall of 2022
“under a consolidation plan,” in an attempt to offload
expensive infrastructure costs and improve academic options for
options abound in and around Saint Paul, and many represent the worst
effects that come with applying unregulated, market-based reforms to
the handful of white
charter schools within the city limits, for example, that have long
waiting lists and offer exclusive programming options, such as Great
(a Montessori school), Nova
and the Twin Cities German Immersion School. On the flip side of this
are racially and economically isolated Saint Paul charter schools
such as Hmong College Prep Academy, where according
to state data
98 percent of the students enrolled are Asian and nearly 80 percent
live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines.
Prep Academy has been in the news
recently, thanks to a scandal that was dubbed
a “hedge fund fiasco” by the Pioneer
The school is run by a husband-and-wife administrative team who
invested $5 million of taxpayer money in a hedge fund, hoping it
would provide a return that would help pay for the school’s
expansion plans. Instead, the hedge fund investment apparently lost
$4.3 million, leading to calls for the school’s superintendent,
Christianna Hang, to be fired - something school officials refused
to do. Hang finally submitted her resignation
in late October.
In short, the
market-based approach to education reform that Minnesota helped
has caused a great deal of disruption, segregation and chaos. In a
Hunger Games-type setting, districts and charter schools have been
forced to compete for students with white, middle and upper-class
largely coming out on top.
result, critics allege, is an increasingly segregated
public education landscape across the state, with no widespread boost
to show for it.
Alternative to Choice and Competition
after Minnesota’s charter school and open enrollment laws
ushered in a mostly unregulated
era of school choice, many states - including Minnesota
- and federal officials may be turning their attention to the reform
model offered by full-service
community schools offer a holistic approach to education that is
about much more than students’ standardized test scores or the
number of AP classes a school offers. Instead, this model seeks to
schools as community resource centers
that also provide academic instruction to K-12, or even Pre-K-12,
a handful of districts have adopted this model, often with impressive
longest-running full-service community schools implementation is in
a very diverse suburb just north of Minneapolis. Since 2009, the
city’s public school district has operated under the
providing such things as counseling and medical and dental services
alongside the traditional academic offerings of the school system.
months, Brooklyn Center’s community schools approach has been
put to the test, due to both the ongoing pandemic and the unrest that
erupted after George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police
officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. In April 2021, as Chauvin’s
murder trial was underway a few miles away in downtown Minneapolis, a
white Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed a young Black
man named Daunte
during a traffic stop.
of trauma upon trauma might have broken the Brooklyn Center community
apart, as large protests
soon took place outside the city’s police headquarters and
caused disruption among residents - many of whom are recent
immigrants and refugees. During this turmoil, school district
staffers, already familiar with the needs of their community, were
able to quickly mobilize resources
on behalf of Brooklyn Center students and families thanks to the
existing full-service community schools model.
just urban districts like Brooklyn Center that have benefited from
this approach. In rural Deer River, Minnesota - where more than
two-thirds of the district’s K-12 students live
according to federal income guidelines, and 85 Deer River students
are listed as being homeless - the school district adopted
the full-service model in recent years, thanks to startup grants from
state and federal funding sources.
in Deer River are reportedly
very happy with the full-service model, which allowed them to pivot
during the pandemic and provide food, transportation services and
other community-specific needs. A local media outlet even noted
that the community schools approach enabled school district employees
to survey families during the COVID-19 shutdown and provide
them with things such as fishing poles and bikes to help them get
through this challenging time.
districts across the United States, from Las
Cruces, New Mexico,
have also adopted the full-service community schools approach, which
is built around sharing power and uplifting communities rather than
closing failing schools and shuttling students out of their
neighborhoods through open-enrollment or charter school options.
Schools Approach Is on the Rise
public education through the proliferation of school choice schemes,
including charter schools, has long been the preferred education
reform model for politicians and wealthy philanthropists in the
United States, and while the charter school industry has been able to
score billions in federal funding, the full-service community schools
model has instead been relegated to the sidelines.
starting to change.
2021, a coalition
of education advocacy groups, including the National Education
Association and the American Federation of Teachers, wrote an open
letter to congressional leaders asking that more federal dollars be
spent on full-service community schools. Most recently, the letter
notes, Congress allocated $30 million in funding for such schools
nationwide, a number the coalition deemed far too low to meet the
“need and demand for this strategy.”
Now, the Biden
administration has proposed
dramatically bumping this funding up to $443 million, based on the
support this model has received from people such as the current U.S.
Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona. While giving input
on behalf of Biden’s proposed budget for the Department of
Education, Cardona explained that full-service community schools
honor the “role of schools as the centers of our communities
and neighborhoods” and are designed to help students achieve
academically by making sure their needs - for food, counseling,
relationships, or a new pair of eyeglasses, and so on - are also
the Biden administration succeeds in directing millions more in
funding toward full-service community schools, it might not be too
late to save public schools, in Minnesota and across the country.
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