St. Paul families do not lack publicly funded school options (“Be wary of limits on charter schools,” editorial, April 30). As a parent of a current Central High School student (and of a 2018 graduate of that school), I have sifted through the myriad choices available to our children through the years — in St. Paul Public Schools, charters and neighboring districts. My wife and I have looked at data, attended open houses, talked to other parents, toured buildings and tried as best as possible to discern what would be the right place for our children’s education. The choices are dizzying and the stakes are high.
In some fashion, every family wants the same thing for their children — a place where they can achieve and be supported. But not all families have the time, energy, connections or ability to do what we and many white, middle-class families in St. Paul do every year.
And yet our education system puts the primary burden of guaranteeing a quality education on the backs of families, no matter their capacity or ability to exercise that choice.
Our state Constitution, in Article XIII, Section 1, places the responsibility of establishing a “general and uniform system of public schools” on the state Legislature, along with the requirement of providing sufficient funding “to secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”
For more than 25 years, the structure of our state’s public education system, as established by our Legislature, has been framed around choice. No guarantee of quality. No guarantee of uniformity. No guarantee of efficiency. Just access. And it’s a system that has benefited some, particularly those who have been able to obtain access to the right educational environment, whether by the luck of lottery, geography or birth.
But for many more, the impact of choice has not led to improved educational outcomes, innovation or better programs. The cumulative impact of thousands of individual family choices over the years has led to a market-based approach to education that treats it like a commodity and has undermined a sense of collective responsibility to our state’s children.
I see the direct result of this choice-based system in my work on the St. Paul school board. Without question, there is much that needs to be done to improve St. Paul Public Schools, and the responsibility for doing that work lies with everyone at the district, from staff to administration to board. As the district with the state’s highest concentration of students of color, low-income students and English language learners, SPPS has its work cut out in order to be competitive in the educational “marketplace.”
But SPPS does not exist in a vacuum. So when families choose to send their children to schools outside of SPPS, it has significant impacts on our budgets, which directly affects the education the district can provide to its students.
A choice-based system imposes real costs on everyone involved and guarantees there will be winners and losers. State policymakers have justified this system on the premise that it will lead to better overall outcomes down the road. Well, we are over a quarter century down the road, so at what point do we examine this journey and ask whether our state is on the right path?
Is our state doing better preparing a more diverse student population in an environment in which we have widening inequities in money and power based on race and geography? Is our Legislature making the best use of funding to meet the standards set forth in our state’s Constitution? If we were starting out from scratch, is this educational system the one we would design?
This conversation may start within the city of St. Paul, but it’s really a statewide conversation. And if we truly believe that every child in Minnesota deserves a quality education regardless of ZIP code or background, we should not be afraid of having it soon.
Steve Marchese is vice chair of the St. Paul school board. The opinions expressed here are his own.