In Minnesota, school districts have no children. None. But some seem to think they do.
Much is being said lately about the impact of open enrollment and chartered public schools on the student enrollment in the St. Paul and Minneapolis district schools, and more recently in Minnetonka.
Some appear to suggest that open enrollment and chartered schools are to blame for “taking kids away from districts.”
But because districts have no children, that’s not possible.
What apparently is not fully understood is that Minnesota laws enacted in the 1980s relating to open enrollment, postsecondary enrollment options and area learning centers, and the state’s 1991 charter school law, significantly changed the education paradigm. Before these enactments, districts did indeed, in a sense, have kids — as they, not parents, decided which schools students would attend. But the laws of the ’80s and ’90s changed all that.
Under those laws, parents, not districts, decide where children will go to school. Yet the media and some district leaders and advocates continue to report the number of students that chartered schools have somehow “taken” from districts.
The Star Tribune has reported that the leadership of the St. Paul district board has gone so far as to suggest that because chartered schools are taking away so many of their students, the Legislature should pass a law to prevent more such schools from opening, thereby halting this drain of their students.
In the urban core, the parents choosing chartered schools are most often parents of color and those living in poverty. These are among the most disenfranchised and powerless people in the community. The public school choice laws gave these parents the same voice as wealthy parents, who always could select their schools either by sending their children to private schools or by physically moving to the districts they preferred for their children.
Before the laws of the 1980s and ’90s, district boards had an exclusive franchise over public education. Only the district could provide public education and students attended the schools determined by the district. But that is no longer Minnesota’s model.
Neither the Minnetonka district, through open enrollment, nor chartered schools are requiring any students to attend their schools. Parents are making every one of those decisions. The St. Paul board leadership is suggesting that charter schools should be studied to determine their impact on the district. Perhaps the board should study instead why its schools are not doing better, which is the likely reason parents are sending their kids elsewhere.
As a lifelong educator, I have never heard of a parent removing a child from a school that he or she believed was serving that child well.
This discussion appears to be less about how to better educate children than it is about money. In Minnesota, revenue follows students to the schools they attend. The argument against chartering and open enrollment is that the state should prevent parents from sending their children (and accompanying state dollars) to the schools they want and rather require them to send their children to the schools they do not want.
And speaking of money, what isn’t being discussed is that having students attend district schools rather than charter schools or another district through open enrollment has significant implications for property taxes. As chartered schools do not receive the local property tax portion of the district’s revenue, every child who moves from a chartered school to a district school would create pressure for a property tax increase. For every 2,500 pupils moving from a chartered school to a St. Paul district school, property taxpayers in St. Paul could face more than a $4 million increase annually based on current levy.
In 2002 I was a consultant to the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). In my report to the board I wrote: “… the board cannot continue down the road of reducing line item expenditures by $25 to $35 million each year. Not only will such action not work, it will be detrimental to the district’s capability to deliver quality learning opportunities.”
The report outlined new models of schools and how to develop them in innovative ways. When I wrote that report, about 50,000 students attended district schools. But parents were beginning to choose other schools.
Even though there are now more children and youth in Minneapolis than when I wrote my report, the district now enrolls only about 33,000 pupils. The MPS Board never invited me to discuss the recommendations of that report with them. They did not want to hear about what now has become reality.
Parents are quite savvy when it comes to choosing schools for their children. That is exactly what the Minnesota parent choice laws envisioned. Why would Minnesota want to revert to a model where district schools could take parents for granted? The good news is that most public schools — district and chartered — understand and agree with the current system.
Those that do not will continue to see parents “voting with their feet” and taking the money with them.
Robert Wedl was Minnesota commissioner of education in Gov. Arne Carlson’s administration and deputy commissioner under Gov. Rudy Perpich.