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Continued: As charter schools grow in suburbs, critics raise red flags

  • Article by: GREGORY A. PATTERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 15, 2009 - 11:14 PM

The Math and Science Academy in Woodbury has become known as a successful charter school that serves up a specific curriculum to students with a technical bent since opening at the beginning of this decade. In Eden Prairie, Eagle Ridge Academy is developing a reputation for its classical education, and in Bloomington, Beacon Preparatory School is trying to do the same thing.

In addition to being charter schools with specific missions, these institutions share another trait: They are in suburbs, far from the urban educational turmoil that charter schools were, in part, designed to solve. Their students are predominantly white, and their test scores above average.

Initially, charter schools were intended to boost education in troubled urban schools, giving their students more choice and more innovative teaching methods. They have helped in many cases. But an unintended result has brought more choice to many suburban areas, which already had comparatively good schools.

Now, there are more charter schools in the metro-area suburbs than in either Minneapolis or St. Paul. Educators and policymakers agree that the rise of suburban charter schools has been surprising, but they disagree over whether it's a good thing.

Cyndi Bluhm, of Cottage Grove, is like many parents of charter school kids. She has one in 11th grade at Math and Science Academy, and just started another there in sixth grade, its entry level, because the older child had such a good experience, Bluhm said.

She is also on the school's board of directors. "I'm a very involved parent," Bluhm said. "It's just easier than a lot of schools that have several layers of administration."

Smaller schools, ease of parent access and specialized focus are a few of several reasons experts say that charter schools have gained favor in the suburbs. In addition, students and parents have gotten used to having many different schools from which to choose.

A school of their own

"The growth of charter schools in the suburbs is a pretty interesting trend we've seen in the last six years," said Morgan Brown, assistant commissioner at the state's Department of Education, who is in charge of school choice.

While the department hasn't studied the trend closely, Brown said suburbanites are interested in charter schools because some public school districts where they reside don't offer as many choices as even the public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where residents can choose from a hodgepodge of magnet programs, and more private schools.

Lakes International Academy, for example, was started by a group of parents and educators in the Forest Lake School District who wanted a language immersion program. When the district didn't move forward swiftly, they started the charter school on their own.

"We had several families that initially came to us because they didn't believe the public schools were being responsive to their needs," said Cam Headlund, the school's director. Now the school has more than 570 K-6 students.

Others, however, question the results of a policy that lets charter schools emerge wherever an adequately certified group arranges to place one.

Spending state dollars on charter schools that only provide greater educational choice -- whether by way of a smaller school or a more focused area of study -- isn't wise, some policy experts say. Higher academic achievement should be mandatory as well, and many charter schools have failed to deliver that.

Moreover, charter schools increase segregation in both city and suburb, harming chances of low-income students to get a better education, said Myron Orfield, executive director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty.

'White flight'

Calling suburban charter schools a version of "white flight," Orfield said many of the suburban charter schools tend to have even fewer students of color than the public school districts in which they are located. Others who have criticized charter school outcomes say they are less certain about the role of race.

When charter schools manage to help students reach high academic standards, they also should be called upon to help low-income and minority students do the same by bringing more of them into their student body, said state Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury.

That is because charter schools are publicly funded and get significant startup money as well. Other states, including Illinois and Missouri, have greater restrictions on where charter schools may be located. Illinois has few outside Chicago, and Missouri allows them only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Such strategies may be worthy of consideration in Minnesota, Saltzman said.

As chair of an education committee, Saltzman worked on the state legislation that tightened requirements for charter schools this year. "This isn't about race. It focuses on student achievement," Saltzman said.

Some charter school leaders say the state already is getting a bargain for its money.

"We have a high level of expectations from our students that includes a code of conduct," said John Howitz, director of Eagle Ridge Academy. "Our students wear uniforms; our middle school kids read 31 books in three years," including "Gulliver's Travels," "Treasure Island" and "Pocahontas," Howitz said.

What's more, Eagle Ridge students score as well on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment-II exams as those in the Eden Prairie School District, and the school's costs are 14 percent lower on a per-student basis, Howitz said.

A 'complicated issue'

The state's Education Department views it more from a family choice perspective, said commissioner Brown, allowing that families of all groups choose particular charter schools because of their racial makeup.

"This is a complicated issue that has gotten some discussion," Brown said. "Middle- and upper-income folk have always had the opportunity to decide where they can send their children. The difference now is that lower-income people have the same opportunities."

Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287

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