Money isn't everything in education, but if we are going to demand excellence from our public schools, charters included, they need the funding to do the job.
Educational choice may have gotten its start here in Minnesota, but it is increasingly at risk -- particularly in rural parts of our state, as support in St. Paul for alternatives like charter schools appears to be wavering.
As the Star Tribune recently reported, charter schools may have reached the saturation point in the metro region ("Growth of charter schools is slowing," June 4). But here in rural Minnesota, students are still waiting in most cases for the kind of choices their urban counterparts now take for granted.
Creating those choices is more difficult than ever because of an unprecedented funding and regulatory situation that has made starting a charter school in Minnesota today a daunting endeavor, slowing the development of new schools dramatically.
The 2009 change in the approval process for charters inevitably slowed new applications. While the process is now clarified, new charters today face an even bigger roadblock -- lack of funding.
It's a problem of bipartisan origin. While Republican legislators support charter schools in theory, the GOP's rigid anti-tax position has forced the state to balance its books through a draconian holdback of school funding that is meanwhile steadily losing ground to inflation.
DFL leaders, meanwhile, have largely abandoned the school choice vision first outlined by DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, for fear of offending teachers' unions. This past year, Gov. Mark Dayton sliced state charter school startup funding from the budget.
As budget savings go, this cut barely amounted to a rounding error (mostly because there are now so few startups), but the funding cut was a blow to new charter schools.
It came as federal charter school grant funds were drying up as well, at least in Minnesota. While the federal Department of Education recently approved Minnesota for a partial funding reallocation, federal delays in finalizing the grant mean the money will be available too late to help schools planning to open this year. That means a less than optimal startup for the two or three hardy schools willing to take the plunge into Minnesota's increasingly chilly charter school waters.
On top of this, new schools still face a holdback of 35.7 percent of their regular student aid. While every school faces this issue, the effect of the holdback is less dire for existing schools, which receive their holdback from the prior year on top of the reduced funding for the current year.
New schools, on the other hand, must fund all of their startup expenses, purchase equipment, supplies, computers, and much more -- and fund operations -- with just 65 percent of the funds that an already-existing school needs just to keep the doors open.
As a board member of one such startup -- the Vermilion Country School, in Tower -- I can attest to the challenge. I have 20-plus years experience running a successful small business in a seasonal economy, but I found the budgeting realities for a new charter school in Minnesota difficult at best.
We are fortunate in our case to have tremendous community support, since to date every single dollar we've spent developing the school has come from local donations. In the case of one other charter school startup this year, the school founder remortgaged his house to fund startup costs.
Such circumstances are unprecedented in Minnesota.
What's more, other funding sources typically aren't available to charter schools, at least in rural parts of the state. Minnesota's philanthropic foundations usually won't provide support to charter schools, apparently believing that funding schools is the role of the state.
Money isn't everything in education, but if we are going to demand excellence from our public schools, charters included, they need the funding to do the job. Funding holdbacks and the elimination of state startup funds certainly don't enhance the educational prospects of new schools.
The bottom line is clear. If charter schools are not given the resources necessary to succeed -- or the ability to establish new schools to replace those that fail -- the future of educational choice in the state that invented it is in serious doubt.
Marshall Helmberger is editor and publisher of Timberjay Newspapers in northeastern Minnesota.