Selected readings on US charter schools
A newly released report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools shows enrollment on the upswing nationally and in Minnesota, the birthplace of the charter movement. Minneapolis and St. Paul posted some of the most marked charter enrollment growth last school year: a 7 percent increase in Minneapolis and 10 percent in St. Paul.
Experts say a slight increase in urban school-age populations and some success in attracting suburban students explain the city charters’ more recent growth. Still, notes Joe Nathan of St. Paul’s Center for School Change, “The vast majority of Minnesota youngsters still attend public school districts.”
The Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts have held their own in recent years after losing thousands of students to charters in the 2000s. Enrollment in St. Paul Public Schools has been stable, and Minneapolis has seen some student gains.
Charter school enrollment growth has continued this fall. According to the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, preliminary numbers place statewide enrollment at 44,000 students, or 3,000 pupils more than last year.
Based on data compiled by the Center for School Change, nearly a third of that growth took place in St. Paul. This year, St. Paul charters are serving 12,200 students, 950 more than last spring.
The news is alarming to some supporters of traditional public schools: State per-pupil aid has followed students to charters, which critics say tend to be more homogenous and haven’t always delivered stronger academic performance.
Charters — public schools that operate independently of school districts — serve about 5 percent of Minnesota’s public school students. Nationally, according to the new report, about 2.3 million students attended charters last school year, an increase of 225,000 pupils over the previous year.
The number of districts nationally where at least 20 percent of students attend charters has increased from seven to 32 since 2005. The Minnesota charter association notes a caveat in interpreting the report: Unlike many other states, Minnesota allows families to cross district lines freely in choosing schools.
Nathan and Eugene Piccolo, the charter association’s executive director, listed several reasons for the local growth of charters. Some schools have offered appealing specialized programs, from arts to Montessori to language immersion.
“What I hear regularly from parents is that they are looking for something distinctive,” said Nathan.
He adds both St. Paul and Minneapolis have responded by boosting specialized offerings, such as the newly opened Parkway Montessori Middle School in St. Paul.
Some of those specialized charters, such as the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, are drawing students from suburban districts. Such students make up almost half the population at the Conservatory.
Then, there are an array of rapidly growing schools catering to students from ethnic and other minorities. Those students have sometimes struggled to find their footing in traditional public schools.
Myron Orfield of the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, a vocal critic of the charter movement in the state, says many of those schools have fail to produce higher test scores or graduation rates. To him, the homogenous demographics of many urban charters is a growing concern.
The institute describes about a quarter of St. Paul charters are diverse, meaning they serve between 20 and 60 percent students of color. Only 14 percent of Minneapolis charter are diverse by that definition.
Piccolo said it’s important to remember the demographics of charters reflect parental choices. Still, he said the association will urge its members this January to ramp up effort to boost diversity.
“We’re going to challenge our schools to have outreach and recruitment plans that address diversity,” Piccolo said.
Source: TwinCities.com – by Mila Koumpilova