When charter schools started in Minnesota in the early 1990s, they were touted as a higher-quality alternative for parents, particularly poor and minority families, looking to escape underperforming district schools.

But a study released today by the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty finds that most charter schools have fallen short of that promise and perform worse than comparable district schools on state tests. In the process, it said, charters also intensify racial and economic segregation and compound the problem by encouraging districts to compete by creating ethnic niche programs.

"So many people are seeing charter schools as a solution to poor, segregated neighborhoods," said Myron Orfield, the institute's executive director. "The sad part is, they're getting these kids to switch schools and then they're doing worse" than district schools.

The report also points to open enrollment programs, such as the Choice is Yours, as offering students of color and low-income students access to "better-performing, less segregated schools."

The study analyzed state reading test scores from the 2007-08 school year and found that only 24 percent of elementary charter schools in the Twin Cities performed better than expected, given their poverty rate. By comparison, 79 percent of the Choice is Yours schools and 54 percent of traditional schools performed better than expected, given their poverty rates. Choice is Yours allows Minneapolis students to transfer to suburban schools. Results for math exams were similar.

Minneapolis and St. Paul charter enrollment has grown by 21 and 11 percent, respectively, over the past school year, according to the Center for School Change. Last year, more than 28,000 Minnesota students enrolled in charters.

The study comes as a group of state legislators meets to develop recommendations for how charter school law can be improved during the upcoming session.

A 2008 legislative auditor's report suggested the Legislature should clarify the role of charter sponsors and increase their authority, as well as require board members to attend financial training.

"I am disappointed that more of them aren't doing any better than they are," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chairwoman of the House K-12 Finance Committee. "I think they haven't turned out to be any kind of a panacea. They're one more alternative choice and a heck of a lot of them aren't, obviously, doing as well."

The report's researchers said Minnesota's school finance system encourages charter schools to disproportionately draw struggling students because it awards more money per pupil for at-risk students.

Minneapolis Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said that at a "fundamental, core level" all schools in the state should be high quality schools regardless of their racial or ethnic composition. She said in a state that values choice, schools and other public organizations must work to educate parents about their options.

"It's not just enough to say you have a choice but you want it to be an informed choice for parents," Johnson said.

The report shows that 53 percent of the 116 Twin Cities charter schools are non-white segregated schools, compared to just 18 percent of traditional Twin Cities public schools.

"I thought with Brown vs. Board of Education we said separate but equal doesn't work," said Baris Gumus-Dawes, a research fellow at the institute. "Now all of a sudden we're pretending that it does."

Yet charter school and public school officials disagree with the report's assumption that integrated schools are inherently superior.

"The fact that the kids go in the same front door -- even if they sit next to each other -- does not guarantee that they come out the other end with the same world-class education," said Yusef Mgeni, director of the Office of Educational Equity for the St. Paul schools.

Meeting diverse needs

Minnesota was the first state to allow charter schools, which are independently run and publicly financed. Over the past 17 years, a complex fabric of schools serving almost every imaginable niche has developed. The schools offer a range of concentrations, from conservatory classes for aspiring artists to single-sex math and science academies to programs with an Afro-centric focus.

Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, said there are a lot of different ways to look at test scores and other data.

Nathan said the Institute on Race and Poverty report examined data based on student performance at a single point in time, whereas previous studies that measure charter students' progress over time found they outperformed comparable district schools.

"Instead of trying to destroy programs, we should learn from the best," Nathan said.

He also pointed to a recent analysis of test scores for Choice is Yours that shows students who stayed behind in Minneapolis schools are doing as well as or better than those who were bused out.

Some charter schools are thriving academically. Orfield, however, said those schools are anomalies and too difficult to replicate.

'It's just hard work'

Orfield said that charter schools' tendency to focus on niche groups has worsened the Twin Cities' school segregation problem. Research from the Institute on Race and Poverty has shown that black students here are more likely to be in segregated schools today than they were in 1970.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have district schools that focus on Hmong culture, and Orfield contends that they were created to compete with charters such as St. Paul's Hmong Academy, which drew almost 200 students when it opened in 2007.

But Mgeni takes issue with that. He says the St. Paul Hmong magnet school was launched in order to meet the requests of parents within the community.

In a year where wealthier, whiter schools such as Edina High were tripped up by state testing goals, Harvest Preparatory School, a K-6 charter in north Minneapolis, met all its state testing goals.

Nearly all of Harvest Prep students are black and 86 percent come from low-income families.

"The economics may present challenges but it's up to the schools to put programs in place that overcome those challenges," said Eric Mahmoud, a co-founder of the school, which is sponsored by the Minneapolis district.

Harvest Prep's 325 students spend eight hours a day in school with two hours spent on both reading and math. Some students attend Saturday school if needed.

Mahmoud said similar strategies are being used at charter schools nationwide.

"It's nothing magical that we're doing," he said. "It's just hard work."

Ann Iweriebor, a Harvest Prep parent from north Minneapolis, said the fact that it is largely black and low income is not a drawback.

"My only concern is that children be educated and reach their highest level of potential regardless of the color of the school they're in," she said.

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