Energy is building in St. Paul to examine how Minnesota’s choice-focused public school system impacts the quality of education of our city’s children. Thus, it’s not surprising that some of the architects and defenders of the current system have begun to raise the same old arguments they have been using for the past three decades to shut down this effort. Such is the case with the commentary “Open enrollment, charters don’t ‘take’ kids from districts,” on Dec. 27.
For more than 30 years, choice advocates have been using neoliberal rhetoric to justify a system that guarantees no child a quality education and places parents and guardians exclusively in the position of ensuring the needs of their children are being met. Under the guise of competition, open enrollment and charter schools are supposed to “empower” parents to “vote with their feet,” inspiring school districts to compete to retain students through innovation lest they lose enrollment and funding. School districts that fail to do so would and should end up being collateral damage in this effort.
Missing from this discussion is the recognition that, under Minnesota law, local public school districts are the only entities responsible for accepting every resident child into their schools and providing them with an education, regardless of ability. Moreover, Minnesota’s Constitution places the responsibility for organizing the state’s public education system squarely on the Legislature. It is to be done in a manner that is “general and uniform” and with sufficient resources to “secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”
After three decades, why are school choice proponents so resistant to examining its overall impact? Our state’s Constitution sets the standard for reviewing the Legislature’s actions over the intervening years, and all children in St. Paul (and in Minnesota), regardless of where educated, have a right to expect the Legislature to meet its obligations to them.
Perhaps choice proponents are concerned that our current choice-centered system might not stand up to the scrutiny. In St. Paul, here are some relevant facts:
St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) educates approximately 62% of the resident school-age children in the city; charter schools educate approximately 21%; and the overall racial demographics of each group are exactly the same (approximately 79% students of color). However, the racial demographics of individual charter schools are quite skewed — nearly all are more segregated by race than any of the schools operated by SPPS. Moreover, state laws regarding integration generally do not apply to charter schools. This enables white families, for example, to choose to send their children to schools that are over 70% white, three times the overall proportion in SPPS and higher than any single school operated by the district.
While charter schools are publicly funded, there is less public oversight of their operations and governance. SPPS finances and budgets are publicly scrutinized and approved. Members of the public elect board members whose contact information is publicly available and who must meet in public session to conduct business. There are few to no requirements for notifying the public when charter school boards meet or for allowing public access to financial and business records.
Charter schools do face the same challenges as district schools in meeting the educational needs of their students. And, by and large, they have had the same relative level of success. For example, compare two schools with similar demographics and locations on the East Side of St. Paul — Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet (operated by SPPS) and Community School of Excellence (operated as a charter school). According to the 2019 Minnesota Report Card, at Phalen Lake, 93.1% had consistent attendance, 38.2% met standards in math, 32.9% met standards in reading and 17.5% met standards in science. At Community School of Excellence, 97% had consistent attendance, 29.6% met standards in math, 34.9% met standards in reading and 17.7% met standards in science.
Charter schools do not operate on a level playing field with school districts. Through a system called “tuition billing,” charter schools enrolling St. Paul resident students may charge back up to 90% of the cost of required special education services to SPPS. State special education reimbursement formulas leave SPPS with nearly $10 million in costs that it must pay out of general legislative funding allocated to the district. As a result, SPPS is forced to take resources from its own students to meet the needs of charter school students for whom it receives not a single dime of state funding.
Far too little time and effort has been spent in examining how school choice has impacted the education of the vast majority of Minnesota children who are educated in publicly operated schools. Advocates for choice wrap themselves in the rhetoric of empowerment and ignore the fact that in St. Paul, for example, approximately three times more students of color attend SPPS schools than charter schools. SPPS has a lot of work to do to better meet their needs — something discussed regularly on social media pages, public meetings, in newspapers and on TV.
However, we should also scrutinize the other publicly funded options that educate our children and hold them equally accountable for their results and effects on our community. We should look carefully at how choice has created winners and losers and ask whether we, as a city and a state, are comfortable with these facts. We must also examine assumptions about competition and markets to determine whether those values and the decisions that relied on them have produced the promised results.
Steve Marchese is vice-chair of the St. Paul school board. The opinions expressed here are exclusively his own.