Why Minnesota, Known for Charter Schools, Is Now Joining a Nationwide Trend for Community Schools

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Yves here. While this post too often uses words like “holistic,” which bug me as too vague and evocative to describe well how systems operate, it does explain how and why Minnesota is getting over its charter school romance and adopting approaches to education that conceive of schools as very much part of community life.

By Sarah Lahm, a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm. Produced by Our Schools

Minnesota is widely known as the land of 10,000 lakes—actually, there are more than 10,000. But the state, which was the first in the nation to pass a charter school law in 1991, could also be described as the land of school choice. Beyond charters, Minnesota is also home to the nation’s first comprehensive open enrollmentlaw, dating back to the late 1980s, which allows K-12 students to attend any public school in a district of their choice, provided there is space in the host district.

While the abundance of lakes covering the state was the result of a natural process, it would be hard to describe the rapid growth of charter schools and school choice in the North Star State as some sort of natural occurrence, driven solely by parents and teachers hungry for alternative learning environments. But Minnesota—as well as many other states and the federal government—is awakening to another approach to school improvement that is expanding, from the ground up, in a more natural way: the full-service community schools model.

In contrast to charter schools and other market-based approaches to school improvement, full-service community schools offer a holistic approach to education that is about lifting up students and the communities they live in, rather than pitting schools against one another in the interest of greater choice and competition.

Why Charters and Choice?

An overview of Minnesota’s groundbreaking charter school legislation refers to it as an attempt to fund “results-oriented, student-centered public schools.” This is an optimistic assessment of the Minnesota law that touches on the educational aspirations that the charter schools system carries, but it entirely sidesteps another important aspect of the system: the connection between charter schools and the privatization of public education.

This push to privatize the nation’s public school system has been made possible in large part by the federal government. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration readily embraced the concept of school choice by promising to close the “worst performing schools,” among other things, while seeking millions in expansion funds for the growing charter school sector. These efforts snowballed under former President George W. Bush, who funneled more than $1 billion toward supporting charter schools, often at the expense of public school districts.

Former President Barack Obama’s administration then continued along this path by pumping billions of additional taxpayer dollars into the hands of charter school operators around the country, thanks to the pro-school choice efforts by Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Wealthy philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also jumped aboard the school choice train, directing millions of dollars toward the privatization of public education in the United States. The interests of both philanthropists and the federal government were most clearly united under former President Donald Trump’s leadership, when billionaire school choice advocateBetsy DeVos became the secretary of education.

Minnesota’s “first in the nation” charter school law also opened the door to charter school legislation in other states. Since the 2005-2006 school year, charter school enrollment has more than tripled; today, more than 3 million students attend such schools across the country. Only a handful of small, less-populated states, such as Nebraska, Vermont, and North and South Dakota, do not allow charter schools.

In Minnesota, there are currently 180 privately run, publicly funded charter schools, enrolling more than 60,000 students in grades K-12.

Similarly, open enrollment policies have exploded since Minnesota pioneered that option, and now nearly all states offer some sort of intra- and inter-district transfer option.

School reform models built around competition and choice have led to greater disruption in cities such as New Orleans and Chicago, where former Mayor Rahm Emanuel oversaw the shuttering of dozens of neighborhood schools amid a boom in the local charter school market.

In Minnesota, the Saint Paul Public Schools district has been left gasping for air as school choice schemes continue to wreak havoc on the district’s enrollment numbers and, subsequently, its finances.

This district is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, if not the nation, with approximately 35,000 students representing a wide array of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Two-thirds of the district’s students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and almost 300 students in the district are listed as being homeless.

As a result of more school choice, in 2017, 14,000 school-age children living in the city were not enrolled in the Saint Paul Public Schools district. Instead, they either attended a charter school in or near the city or chose to open-enroll into a neighboring school district.

Just two years later, in 2019, the exodus of families had risen to more than 16,000. Today, more than one-thirdof all students living in Saint Paul do not attend Saint Paul Public Schools, leaving the district in a constant state of contraction.

The district’s lagging enrollment numbers can be attributed to shrinking birthrates and “a rise in school choice options,” according to a recent article by Star Tribune reporter Anthony Lonetree.

As a consequence of shrinking enrollments, district officials recently outlined a reorganization proposal that calls for the closure of eight schools by the fall of 2022 “under a consolidation plan,” in an attempt to offload expensive infrastructure costs and improve academic options for students.

Charter school options abound in and around Saint Paul, and many represent the worst effects that come with applying unregulated, market-based reforms to public education.

There’s the handful of white flight charter schools within the city limits, for example, that have long waiting lists and offer exclusive programming options, such as Great River School (a Montessori school), Nova Classical Academy, and the Twin Cities German Immersion School. On the flip side of this are racially and economically isolated Saint Paul charter schools such as Hmong College Prep Academy, where according to state data 98 percent of the students enrolled are Asian and nearly 80 percent live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines.

Hmong College Prep Academy has been in the news recently, thanks to a scandal that was dubbed a “hedge fund fiasco” by the Pioneer Press. The school is run by a husband-and-wife administrative team who invested $5 million of taxpayer money in a hedge fund, hoping it would provide a return that would help pay for the school’s expansion plans. Instead, the hedge fund investment apparently lost $4.3 million, leading to calls for the school’s superintendent, Christianna Hang, to be fired—something school officials refused to do. Hang finally submitted her resignation in late October.

In short, the market-based approach to education reform that Minnesota helped pioneer has caused a great deal of disruption, segregation and chaos. In a Hunger Games-type setting, districts and charter schools have been forced to compete for students with white, middle and upper class students and families largely coming out on top.

The end result, critics allege, is an increasingly segregated public education landscape across the state, with no widespread boost in student outcomes to show for it.

An Alternative to Choice and Competition

Thirty years after Minnesota’s charter school and open enrollment laws ushered in a mostly unregulated era of school choice, many states—including Minnesota—and federal officials may be turning their attention to the reform model offered by full-service community schools.

Full-service community schools offer a holistic approach to education that is about much more than students’ standardized test scores or the number of AP classes a school offers. Instead, this model seeks to reposition schools as community resource centers that also provide academic instruction to K-12, or even Pre-K-12, students.

In Minnesota, a handful of districts have adopted this model, often with impressive results.

The state’s longest running full-service community schools implementation is in Brooklyn Center, a very diverse suburb just north of Minneapolis. Since 2009, the city’s public school district has operated under the full-service model, providing such things as counseling and medical and dental services alongside the traditional academic offerings of the school system.

In recent months, Brooklyn Center’s community schools approach has been put to the test, due to both the ongoing pandemic and the unrest that erupted after George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. In April 2021, as Chauvin’s murder trial was underway a few miles away in downtown Minneapolis, a white Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed a young Black man named Daunte Wright during a traffic stop.

This layering of trauma upon trauma might have broken the Brooklyn Center community apart, as large protests soon took place outside the city’s police headquarters and caused disruption among residents—many of whom are recent immigrants and refugees. During this turmoil, school district staffers, already familiar with the needs of their community, were able to quickly mobilize resources on behalf of Brooklyn Center students and families thanks to the existing full-service community schools model.

It’s not just urban districts like Brooklyn Center that have benefited from this approach. In rural Deer River, Minnesota—where more than two-thirds of the district’s K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless—the school district adopted the full-service model in recent years, thanks to startup grants from state and federal funding sources.

Staff in Deer River are reportedly very happy with the full-service model, which allowed them to pivot during the pandemic and provide food, transportation services and other community-specific needs. A local media outlet even noted that the community schools approach enabled school district employees to survey families during the COVID-19 shutdown and provide them with things such as fishing poles and bikes to help them get through this challenging time.

Several other districts across the United States, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Durham, North Carolina, have also adopted the full-service community schools approach, which is built around sharing power and uplifting communities rather than closing failing schools and shuttling students out of their neighborhoods through open-enrollment or charter school options.

Community Schools Approach Is on the Rise

Disrupting public education through the proliferation of school choice schemes, including charter schools, has long been the preferred education reform model for politicians and wealthy philanthropists in the United States, and while the charter school industry has been able to score billions in federal funding, the full-service community schools model has instead been relegated to the sidelines.

That’s starting to change.

In February 2021, a coalition of education advocacy groups, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, wrote an open letter to congressional leaders asking that more federal dollars be spent on full-service community schools. Most recently, the letter notes, Congress allocated $30 million in funding for such schools nationwide, a number the coalition deemed far too low to meet the “need and demand for this strategy.”

Now, the Biden administration has proposed dramatically bumping this funding up to $443 million, based on the support this model has received from people such as the current U.S. Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona. While giving input to Congress on behalf of Biden’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, Cardona explained that full-service community schools honor the “role of schools as the centers of our communities and neighborhoods” and are designed to help students achieve academically by making sure their needs—for food, counseling, relationships, or a new pair of eyeglasses, and so on—are also being met.

If the Biden administration succeeds in directing millions more in funding toward full-service community schools, it might not be too late to save public schools, in Minnesota and across the country.

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  1. orlbucfan

    Betsy DeVos had one goal and it was not school choice. She wanted American taxpayers to fund Christian Fundamentalist private schools. No surprise when one stops and thinks about the fact that her brother is the abominable Eric Prince!

  2. Joe Well

    I hadn’t imagined the extent to which charter schools were openly working toward segregation.

    Imagine putting the name of the target ethnic group in a school’s name, as in “Hmong School”. One of those “I’m amazed that’s legal” moments.

    1. Stephanie

      Yes, there are several charter schools in St. Paul focused on specific demographics: Cesar Chavez Academy focuses on students who speak Spanish as a first language, Midway Star Academy focuses on East African students, there is a “girl-focused” charter that emphasizes STEM, several charters focused on Hmong students, and a bi-lingual charter for deaf pupils. There is also a Native American magnet school but that is, I believe, part of the St. Paul school district.

      That said, in response to the on-going Cruz-Guzman desegregation lawsuit, legislation has been introduced in the MN House that would require charter schools to integrate, based in part on the income levels of the communities they serve:

      The new program would include charter schools for the first time. It also would change the way schools are identified for participation, by employing economic measures of students’ neighborhoods rather than their race.

      Assistant Education Commissioner Darin Korte said that means some school districts with many low-income white students would be required to draft plans and would receive state funds under the new program.

      1. Joe Well

        Ah, thanks. The language would be the obvious fig leaf. “You don’t have to be Hmong to attend this school, but you better want to learn Hmong.”

        Of course this is a standard criticism of bilingual education, which does have a lot to recommend it. I just doubt that is what is happening here.

  3. Otis B Driftwood

    My wife is a teacher and former public school administrator. She was broken by her experience as a principal. The lack of resources was acute. In a community surrounded by million dollar homes, she filled the roles of not only principal, but also nurse, social worker, special needs assistant, guidance counselor and, very often, substitute teacher (the shortage of teachers is critical). After just a few years of this her doctor told her the stress of the job was ruining her health, so she took early retirement.

    I am going to show her this article.

  4. Dave in Austin

    Structurally what we are seeing in MN and especially St. Paul is the following:

    Older cities become host to large concentrations of low-education immigrant groups. The Hmong are Lao hill people transplanted to the US after Vietnam. Very traditional- early marriages; endogenous; very high birth rates (7 children/woman in the first few years). Basically my post-famine Irish ancestors of the 1850-1900 period. This results in high education costs and higher property taxes, which are resisted by older whites who don’t see why they should raise their house taxes to pay for “those people” (again, like rich WASPs vs my Irish ancestors in Boston).

    White parents of young people have a choice; buy in the old neighborhood or move to the suburbs. If they move it creates a “tipping point” and the schools become almost completely new minority (see the Brooklyn Center, MN demographics- it’s called a “very diverse suburb” in the article). If the middle class flees, the housing values and tax receipts go down while the cost of educating a more needy and often disruptive student-base goes up. So we end up in traditionally very liberal MN with charter schools and the like.

    Here in Austin it is “Magnet Schools” that all my professional friends’ children go to: quiet; orderly; safe; a place teachers love to teach in; surprisingly ethnically diverse (parents care less about race and ethnicity than they do about safety and learning environment). Almost none of the parents were born in central Texas. In the old USSR upwardly mobile Jews who wanted to either succeed by moving within the USSR or emigrate were called “Rootless Cosmopolitans”. My friends of all races fit the bill. They expect their children to be going to college and often start careers elsewhere and have their own children in what Solzhenitsyn might have labeled “The Beltway Archipelago”.

    The alternative to magnet schools is White (and educated Asian, Hispanic and Black) flight, across the administrative line into places a federal judge can’t “make more diverse” with a ruling. In Austin that’s Westlake and the Eanes School District; in Birmingham it is Mountain Brook where Yves grew up; in Boston it is Lexington and most of Rt 128 (see law prof Philip Greenspun’s amusing blog from a year ago before he fled to low-tax FL at https://philip.greenspun.com/blog about the very liberal parents and all-white schools on Rt 128). People with resources vote “with their feet” as we used to say of people fleeing Communist oppression.

    Not a pretty picture, for sure. But the recent Virginia and NJ elections should serve as a warning that parents who feel backed into a corner will react.

    1. John Zelnicker

      Dave in Austin – Very interesting. I had never heard of “Rootless Cosmopolitans” and I was following the issues of the Jewish community in Russia when it was precarious.

      One minor detail, I don’t think Yves grew up in Mountain Brook. It might appear so, since she moved there to take care of her mother. IIRC, she moved around a lot as a child, maybe her father was military, that I’m not sure of.

      Edit: I think I inadvertently hit a new moderation tripwire.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I did NOT grow up or even live in Mountain Brook until 2019. Wash your mouth out. The Deep South ex maybe New Orleans has zero truck with outspoken women.

      I went to nine schools before college and the longest I lived anywhere was three years, in Oregon. I made clear a few days ago that I had also lived in Escanaba, Michigan during my childhood.

      1. John Zelnicker

        Yves – “The Deep South ex maybe New Orleans has zero truck with outspoken women.”

        So true. My mother got death threats in the 1960’s because of her work desegregating the Mobile public schools. That was one of the reasons I was sent to Indian Springs School at 15.

  5. William Hunter Duncan

    So many kids living in poverty. So many kids listed as homeless. As a Minnesotan I see the value of community schools. I also, knowing this state/nation is the home of many large corporate headquarters, am more than ready for my fellow Americans to pull their heads out of their (family blog) and start holding the wealthy accountable.

  6. Adam Eran

    JFYI, this is the culmination of the “school reformers'” efforts. They promote three strategies to improve educational outcomes: 1. Merit pay (because teachers are ever so motivated by money), 2. (Union-busting) charter schools, and 3. testing, testing, testing. They even made a propaganda video (Waiting for Superman, or WFS) touting “tiger mom” Michelle Rhee as superintendent of D.C. schools. She fired underperforming teachers, and went on to found “Students First” — an organization well-funded by billionaires, including the late Eli Broad (of builders Kaufman & Broad). WFS points to schools in Finland as the ones to emulate, oddly enough omitting mention that Finnish teachers are tenured, well-paid and unionized.

    Actual science supports none of the three tactics as improving educational outcomes, job preparedness, etc. What factor does correlate with educational outcomes? Answer: Childhood poverty. In Finland, 2% of children are poor. In the U.S. it’s 23%.

    So these are systemic problems, not amenable to tinkering with schools and bureaucracy so much as revising the societal barriers to success.

  7. orlbucfan

    Charter schools are a bad joke down here in FL. For one thing, people applying for teaching positions are not background checked/vetted like they should be. There have been several statewide scandals revealing some of these clowns’ criminal (as in felon) backgrounds.

  8. lance ringquist

    this article hits home, i stood up at the MN. DFL and broadly lambasted those idiots for charter schools, HMO’S and nafta billy clintons disastrous policies. i said charter schools are elitists, and the private sector will get hold of them and milk the school system blind. i said HMO’s were not a answer to a lack of universal health care and the private sector types will milk them also, and of course nafta billy clintons outrageous disastrous polices.
    i was booed down, got a phone call more than once, ending my involvement with them.
    i used to drive by health east, with its billion dollar a year or more CEO, and i laughed. saw one charter after another go down in flames from fraud and a complete lack of any ability to school children, they just became in most cases, a revenue stream for parasites.
    i know deer river, i vacation in that area. it was not always this way for them. many worked at factories and mines on the iron range and duluth. nafta billy clinton wiped that all away.
    never forget, free trade is the keystone to neo-liberalism, without free trade, economies can fall under democratic control.
    st. paul used to be mainly middle class, as was minneapolis. brooklyn park used to be solidly middle to upper middle class.
    factory after factory moved off shore in the 1990’s and beyond. leaving massive poverty behind.

  9. Sue inSoCal

    Charter schools? What a transfer of public money to grifters – in so many cases. In Sacramento, one of the largest high schools (Good work Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnson!) and the oldest high school in the country (I think), Sac High, initially hired +/- 4 “principals” and “Teach America” and relabeled it “St. Hope” in 2003. It’s a continuing mess today. (There’s no mention anymore, that I saw at least, that Cornell West was a graduate. Quelle horreur!)


  10. Eric

    It’s been 20 years since I was on local school board and it was not a nice experience. So political that the board was dysfunctional. Bloated and entrenched administration, many conflicts of interest, corruption, nepotism, etc. This was in a wealthy, white, suburban district in Central, PA. The district was once one of the top 25 in PA and is now way down on any such list. So, elected school boards are a big part of the problem and require oversight.

    Maybe what I say here is ill advised from a research or a professional educators view, but I feel “neighborhood” schools using a K-8 and high school format are likely the best model for academics and promoting community – and keeping transportation and building costs down. Community schools may be the buzz word of the day but I’m leery of what all the term entails. Size of school is important and a 1,000 student “community” elementary school would be way too big in my mind. Keep them small – and walkable. That was the original neighborhood school concept – as well as being designed with lots of natural light and windows that open. But I digress. Because of peer pressure, cliques, etc. it may be wise to limit high schools to, say, 400. If the high schoolers are coming from K-8, there should be less social trauma because the students should mostly know each other already.

    Yes, adding the social service component is needed as well as having a free breakfast program, etc. Half the battle in educating children seems to be impoverished or uncaring parents who don’t know how to parent. The more hours young children in that environment are out of that environment, the better, so voluntary after school programs can help as well. School should be fun too – with recess, story time, arts & crafts, etc. Every child is good a something and part of the job of the “system” should be to help each child find out what that is and then spotlight or praise them when they do find it. For post K-8, it’s critical in my mind, to begin introduction of the trades (and life) via shop classes, home economics, etc. Many of us who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s (in the US at least) had that – but I’m not sure to what extent it remains in public schools anymore.

    Worth mentioning is that No Child Left Behind probably inflicted as much damage to public education as charter schools as it brought about all the misplaced emphasis on teaching to the test. I’m partial to a grading system that says “not yet” instead of “fail”.

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