Alternatives to traditional public schools — namely open enrollment and charter programs — have taken hold in Minnesota in a big way. They’re so popular that nearly 1 in 6 of the state’s 850,000-plus school-age children opt out of their neighborhood schools.
According to a recent Star Tribune series and data analysis called “Students in Flight,” 132,000 Minnesota kids left their home school or district last year to attend either a charter or a different school program. The exodus occurred, for the most part, because parents and students were not getting what they wanted from their attendance-area public schools, and charters and open enrollment gave them the opportunity to go elsewhere.
Those choices also create challenges for the schools and districts left behind.
State education funding follows individual students, so there are financial winners and losers. Districts such as St. Paul and Minneapolis that have lost thousands of kids to charters, for example, are both dealing with multimillion-dollar deficits, in part due to declining enrollment. As the Star Tribune analysis shows, open enrollment and charters have proved especially popular with students of color. While white students represent 60 percent of all students who use open enrollment, a higher share of nonwhite students make the choice to leave.
By popular demand, school options are likely here to stay. Given that reality, traditional public schools should do more to understand what their communities want and need. That starts with improving academic performance to retain and attract more students. In some cases, it means getting a better handle on school discipline and safety. And traditional schools should find ways to work cooperatively — both in programs and financially — with charters and other districts to offer the best, most effective programs for kids.
It’s worth noting that not all alternative schools are academic success stories. What’s the point of having kids leave one school to do as badly or worse academically in another? But clearly many families are making school choices that are changing the face of public education.
If they’re unable to reverse declining enrollment, districts should slow down or stop creating additional legacy costs “such as new buildings or maintaining unsustainable concessions when collective bargaining agreements are renegotiated,” the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a University of Washington research group, concluded in a report released last month.
Center researchers also rightly recommend that districts be less concerned about the numbers of students served and more focused on doing well with the ones they have. It’s possible, they added, for a district to be both smaller and more effective.
Another of the report’s conclusions is one the Star Tribune Editorial Board has long advocated: better cooperation between successful charters and traditional districts. It’s tricky because of the competition for students, but local districts can learn from successful models such as the “teacher-led” elementary school created in Lakeville and cooperative efforts in Denver and Cleveland.
Charters are public schools, too, and districts and the communities they serve should draw on the most successful practices from all taxpayer-supported programs. They all should share the same goal: providing the best instruction for Minnesota students.