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Tuesday Talk: Minneapolis a Charter School Target?

April 09, 2013 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

The number of students attending taxpayer-funded charter schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul have skyrocketed by over 600 percent and 124 percent respectively since the late 1990s. A combined 19,000 students now attend charters in the two cities. Corporate education reformers are eager to boost those numbers significantly. Minnesota 2020 has examined this issue and found charters do no better than traditional K-12 public schools.

Why do reformers continue diverting money from traditional schools to finance a so-called market-driven solution with limited results? 

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  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    April 9, 2013 at 6:47 am

    Who are these “Corporate” education reformers Joe? Education reform has been coming from the Education association leadership since “Mastery Learning” started the reform movement back in the early 60’s. The shift of power to these elitist eggheads has done nothing to increase the quality of education despite continued support from the Teachers Unions. Only when the power is shifted back to the local level and local citizens will this sorry mess be fixed. Your elitist education experts have created a “Class Warfare” based public education system that still works for the Rich and Middle Class and undermines the poor. By eliminating the self serving Teachers Union Charter Schools are half way there, now they have to throw out the State Standards and move back to a Carnegie Unit, competitive system.

  • dave says:

    April 9, 2013 at 7:55 am

    Your first mistake is assuming that “corporate” interests are driving this shift. This is the MARKET at play. Remember, parents CHOOSE to send their children to charter schools, so parents clearly believe they are seeing positive results - enough to drive 600% growth. This means one of two things… either parents who put their children in charter schools are seeing a positive result that MN2020 fails to recognize (you’re measuring the wrong thing), or that tens of thousands of parents who are active enough in their children’s lives to care to choose their schools are, in fact, idiots.

    I suspect the answer is the first one, not the second one. So your second mistake is that you’re measuring the wrong things - the exact same mistake that drives NCLB.

    And sadly, your response to reality is the sort of thing that gives liberals (including people like me) a bad name. When offered a choice, people choose something other than what you want them to choose, so your response is to try to take the choice away. And you wonder why people don’t thank you for it!

    What I WISH MN2020 and other well-meaning groups would do is think of charters as DIVERSITY, not some corporate plot. There is no one true way to educate children. Each child is unique, and has unique educational needs. Charters offer a diverse approach to education, and a chance for teachers to experiment with new methods on children whose parents choose to participate, without putting the conservative and proven approaches of traditional public schools at risk. Small-scale experimentation (which, yes, can fail) is critical to REAL educational improvement. And diversity in educational techniques is needed to maximize the opportunities for success for EVERY child, not just those who most closely fit the mainstream.

  • Joyce says:

    April 9, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Thank you for asking this question.  I believe this is a combination of fierce ideology, a corporate driven marketing campaign, and the underfunding of public education.  I sure hope people wake up soon and start connecting the dots.

    There is a web of interconnections in the Twin Cities - From MinnCAN, TFA, Charter Schools Partners, Hiawatha Academies, E4E, Mpls Foundation, Ciresi, Miller and Kaplan to one of the latest members of the Mpls School Board.

    People are in denial if they don’t believe that local foundations and local people have been co-opted and taken advantage of by this movement.

    Language to listen for: Crises, urgent, “civil rights issue of our time,” transformative, blended learning, 21st Century Skills, failing schools.

    “Reformers” also use misleading data on graduation rates and test scores to sell their schools.  Watch for the use of the 4 year grad rate, be aware that schools with concentrations of poverty have a high percentage of special ed and ELL students.  These students have extended time to earn their diploma, until they are age 21.  These students are not included in the four year grad rates.

    Recognition of this movement is the first step in saving our public school system.

  • Bill Graham says:

    April 9, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Conservatives see charter schools as another way to disempower public institutions and particularly teachers’ organizations.  Charter schools must deal with all the same problems the public schools face: student poverty, broken families, school preparedness and the like.  The difference is they have far fewer resources available to them than the public schools.  Charters promise small class size, individual attention and high standards, eventhough they often fall short in all three.

  • dave says:

    April 9, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Having experienced both public schools and charters with my own children, I can assure you that the lack of unions is NOT what drives the success of charters. This is an example of poor thinking on the conservative side - you dislike unions, and see a positive result in the absence of them, so you assume unions were the problem. Correlation is not causation.

    The benefit of charter schools is flexibility in educational approach. That’s not due to unions or lack thereof, it’s due to institutional size and scope. Large, mainstream school systems should be cautious in their approach and stick to proven techniques, rather than experimenting. Charters, chosen by the parents, can try new techniques that may or may not succeed, or may work only with certain kinds of students. 

    If charters were unionized, they would still be more flexible than large public schools. And if public schools were not unionized, they would still be less flexible. You’re measuring the wrong thing.

  • Brenda Quaye says:

    April 9, 2013 at 9:36 am

    I think it is unfair to offer such a sweeping statement without data.  Kipp Stand Academy is a relatively young Charter School in Minneapolis that is having success with some of Minneapolis’ most at-risk youth.  These are children mostly from North Minneapolis who have been forgotten by the public school system.

    As a parent of 2 children MN public schools, I can tell you that trying to change the current school system from the inside is a difficult and thankless job.  School districts protect their underperforming teachers at the expense of our children.  In 2020 MN children will be competing with Singapore, Japan, China and Norway.  We are asking less from our students at a time when they need to be learning more about math, science, entrepreneurialism, creativity and working with teams.

    Parents need to demand more from our politician in order to put our children first.  An institution based on process and heirarcy that is 50 years old won’t prepare our children for 2020.  Parents are looking for options that prepare our children for success in the real world.  If the current public school institution could become aware and accountable for their results, parents wouldn’t be looking for alternatives, but the fact is that many of us are extremely unhappy with what passes for acceptable results in our public schools.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    April 9, 2013 at 9:42 am

    The so-called “reformers” are not just local but national, starting with
    Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the mayors of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, and any number of corporate types like Bill Gates. Unfortunately, our president (himself gullible?)chose Arne Duncan to continue the policies of a gullible George Bush and doesn’t seem ready to renounce him and his fellow reformers.

    The goal is to use public money to finance private charter schools.  The profit to be made when you consider the billions spent on public education is the corporate reformers’ target. Unions definitely get in the way.

    As is the corporatist goal of producing compliant workers rather than independent, creative thinkers and members of a democratic society.

    I urge everyone to read the writings of Diane Ravitch, who left the Bush Dept. of Education when she saw the harm No Child Left Behind was doing to children, their schools and their teachers.

  • Brian Sweeney says:

    April 9, 2013 at 10:35 am


    How about once you have visited one of these awful corporate-run, public charter schools supported by President Obama—Yes Prep, Uncommon Schools, Noble Network, Rocketship Academy, School of One, Hiawatha Academies, Harvest/Best Schools, Global Academy…we talk. Deal? 


    Brian Sweeney
    Charter School Partners

  • Joe says:

    April 9, 2013 at 10:50 am

    For those interested in why market based education is misguided, read Michael Diedrich’s report False Choices at

  • dave says:

    April 9, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Quoting my daughter, who went to charters from 6th grade through graduation, and is now in college studying to be a teacher…

    “But the thing about families concerned enough about a healthy and quality education is that they don’t stay at a bad school or a school that doesn’t fit. It’s hard to quantify a charter’s performance on test scores alone. I went to two very different schools with similar test score averages. The first one didn’t work, so I looked for something better.”

    My own observation is that the first school she attended was a good school for many students, but a bad school for her as an individual (and also her brother, who went to the same school). The next charter school that they attended was an excellent fit for both of them. On the other hand, I watched many students over the years go to the school that was so good for my kids, find out it didn’t work for them, and move on to another school (often regular public schools) that suited them better.

    Diversity and choice, not “competition” - those are the values that make charters beneficial.

  • Brian Sweeney says:

    April 9, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Today’s news from Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), a local charter school that has grown organically to several campuses, is sponsored by Denver Public Schools (in collusion with the corporatists?). Similar stories at Yes Prep, Houston; Noble Street/Urban Prep, Chicago; and others. Can we celebrate the success of these public schools?

    While we get “to and through college” is what is needed for all students, isn’t it better to have 100% of graduates from all the DSST schools accepted to colleges as oppose to 30%-50% of the DPS district schools serving the same populations as DSST?  Can’t we celebrate the success of these public schools? Don’t be downers guys.

  • Joe says:

    April 9, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    We’re already building education diversity and choice in the traditional E-12 education system. Allowing a limited number of charter schools is part of that. We don’t have to create a parallel structure, which is what the school reformers aim to do in an effort to undermine all public schools. Also many people confuse charter schools with the school reform movement. There are a number of charters serving an important mission that aren’t hitting the high test scores school reformers would like to see. Reform advocates would like to see these “under-preforming” charters wiped out. These students would then be placed back in the traditional K-12 system because school reformers would rather not make the investment in such students.  The goal of the reform movement is to take the best, and leave the rest for traditional public schools to deal with.

  • Dan says:

    April 9, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    The charter school “reformers” are generally loathe to address the subject, but one important reason for enrolling their children in these schools is that they’re able to introduce a religious component into their children’s education that is not possible in a regular public school.  A friend of mine who has two children in a charter school and serves on the board of that school has admitted this to me when we were discussing the subject.  I was somewhat dismayed by this news as I oppose diverting public funds for that purpose.  I believe that we need a more robust and properly funded public school system that is beholden to no corporation and whose curriculum defers to no deity or religious dogma.

  • tony says:

    April 9, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Well, I see the union bashers are out in form. While you claim they protect bad teachers, the St Paul teachers union has spent years bringing in professionals to help mentor new or struggling teachers & if the results arent there, they work with the administration to replace them. While they are doing this work to help your kids, they are also protecting the highest quality teachers keep their jobs while the administration is actively driving out the best(& yes, the most expensive) teachers to lower their salary costs, even if it means lower teaching results with lesser qualified teachers. It’s hard for a new teacher to succeed(let alone an experienced teacher) with 50-60 kids per class. Lets keep our money in the schools we control, so we can reduce class sizes..

  • ChristeenStone says:

    April 9, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    I have found this article and the discussion very interesting.My children
    grew up in the Baby Boomer Age of education. Those of us who came through the Great Depression were determined our
    children would have a good education,so in our area we were building 1 1/2 schools per year My 4 children have all received their degrees: a Doctor, a College Professor, a Lawyer and a Nurse. They did it the hard way with the help we could give.We were always very much involved in their activities and for the most part they had excellent teachers.

    I was an AARP Advocate for seniors and people with disabilities at the State Legislature when Charter Schools began so did take interest in all view points. It was very much a boost for our State as I met people from other states. We were in the process of passing Minnesota Care and we had launched Charter Schools so we were a Progressive, so it felt good. I have not been involved in Charter Schools, my three grandsons next door grew up in our District 622 Schools, just as my family had and have made good choices in life. Personally I feel the way the legislature has chosen to withhold money for education is our biggest problem for either system.

  • Alec Timmerman says:

    April 9, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    First, there is zero correlation between unionization and tenure rules and educational achievement. There are high performing unionized districts and lower performing unionized districts.  In general, unionized districts will perform moderately better.

    However, anyone who is attacking unions and tenure laws, which requires a lot of effort and political capital, is making evident their concern for anti-labor ideology over educational achievement. There is no discernable relationship.

    Secondly, look at even the “beating the odds” charters that are so celebrated. I don’t begrudge them their success except when it is used as a bludgeon against traditional public schools. For example, Harvest Prep seems to do great on math and reading, but literally gets zero percent for several years on the science exams. Zero percent on science. Not one kid passing. Can you imagine if a public school got zero percent? Wold they be labeled as “beating the odds”? Only if they remained open.

    Second, what implications does this have for these testing factories? Four hours of reading and math, which is obviously the focus, does not make for a well rounded, critical thinker. It is the same debate that Booker T. Washington had with W.E.B. DuBois 100 years ago. The idea to get people out of poverty was to either give them a limited education in the basics, or educate the whole person. Booker T was a front for the corporate reformers who wanted factory workers back then. DuBois lost the argument and our education system suffered for it. Our leaders got a broad based liberal arts education based in critical thinking, and continue to design a system of education that perpetuates our class system. If we want leaders from underrepresented populations, we need to train them like our leaders are trained.

    In addition, beating the odds places like Harvest Prep dismiss and suspend at twice the rate of their Minneapolis counterparts.  Traditional schools are punished if they get rid of disruptive students, Charters are rewarded for beating the odds.

    Lastly, imagine for a moment Mounds PArk Academy, a private school. They have determined that it costs about 20k to give our future leaders a top notch education. 20k to educate the kids with the fewest needs, and the most resources at home. 20k to educate the kids with the fewest issues in our society. Yet we gripe and complain about spending 13k to try and educate kids with some of the most challenging and horrific circumstances you can imagine.  Then we say money has nothing to do with it.

  • Alec Timmerman says:

    April 9, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Allied corporate reformers.

    Bill Gates,
    Koch Brothers,
    American Legislative Exchange Council,  (ALEC)
    Student’s First
    Walmart Family
    Broad Foundation
    and on and on

    Basically folks who hate organized labor, and want to use education as a more palatable way to go after unions.

  • Terrance Reisch says:

    April 9, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    IF charter schools do no worse (by your estimation) than public schools, why attack them?  Charters are an important aspect of education, especially as these schools can offer different ways to learn and can reach students otherwise not quite right for a public school setting.

    I know money is tight, but to take down your partners in education seems to disrespect what we do and the students we hope to education.  Surely there are better ways to ensure economic stability.

  • Alec says:

    April 9, 2013 at 7:02 pm

        The simple answer to your question about why we push back against charter schools is self defense of our public educatin system. Twenty years ago the charter movement was started with the bestof intentions as an alternative experiment to traditional schools. That would have been great and I could have wholly supported that. Anything it takes to give more kids a chance.

        However, the movement has been stolen from the idealists by the ideologues. The intent of the charter movement is to privatize and monetize public education. Notice I did not say that was the intent of charter schools or the wonderful teachers. Make not mistake though. It is the intent of the movement. It is sad that these folks pit kid against kid, teacher against teacher, and school against school. In fact it is disgusting to the core. However, I will defend public education against these privatizers. So, why do we push back against the charter movement? Self defense of our kids and our schools. Self defense of the ideals of a strong public education system. We didn’t start this battle, and we are tired of our work being bludgeoned.

    P.S. The most comprehensive study of charters, by Stanford University, found that only 17 percent of charters out perform similar traditional public schools.

  • Leslie Hittner says:

    April 9, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Against what standards are those measurements being made?

  • Lynnell Mickelsen says:

    April 9, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Because “traditional” schools are failing a huge number of our students. I live in Minneapolis where nearly 70 percent of our enrollment is low-income students of color. Below is the current
    4-year graduation rates of Minneapolis vs. St. Paul, pulled directly off the MN Dept. of Ed website.

    Hispanic students in Minneapolis—36.8%
    Hispanic students in St. Paul——-58.5%
    Blacks students in Minneapolis—36.8%
    Blacks students in St. Paul——-46.8%

    Free/reduced lunch in Minneapolis—41.5%
    Free/reduced lunch in St. Paul——-61.9%

    Am. Indian students in Minneapolis—-25%
    Am. Indian students in St.Paul———-52%

    English language learners, MPS———-25.6%
    English language learners in St.P——64.6%

    White students in Minneapolis—-69.8%
    White students in St. Paul———77.3%

    My husband and I are white, middle-class parents with graduate degrees. Our three sons attended Minneapolis Public Schools from grades K-12 and did great. So it’s easy for people like me—-and Joe Sheeran, who posed the above question, to feel comfortable sending our kids (or potential ones in Joe’s case) to traditional district public schools.

    But here’s a question for Joe: as a white middle-class parent, would you send your kid into any school system where only 37 percent of white middle class kids were graduating in four years?

    I’m betting you wouldn’t. I’m betting you’d be looking at alternatives, including public charter schools.

    Of course, if only 37 percent of white middle class kids were graduating on time, we would have already remade traditional schools to work better for them. We’d have already changed the curriculum, the staff, the length of the school day or year, whatever it took because if only 37 percent of white middle class kids were graduating on time, Christ, this would be a major big-time crisis that would demand huge systematic changes.

    Instead, it’s poor brown kids who are failing, so we don’t do any thing that drastic.

    But puhleeze, spare me the hackneyed corporate reformer stuff.  Poor brown families did not leave Minneapolis district schools because they were duped by “corporate education reformers.” They left because they could no longer bear shipping their children to our current drop-out factories and they gave up waiting for white middle-class people like us, (who designed and defend the status quo) to change the schools to work better for their kids.

    As Geoffrey Canada tells parents in Harlem, “No one is coming to save your children.”

    If parental choice—-or what you call “market-driven solutions” played such a great “cherry-picking” role, then all charter schools would be fantastic. But they’re not. We have great public charter schools and lousy ones——just as we have great and lousy traditional public schools. However, nearly all the “beat-the-odds” schools that are getting great results with low-income students of color are public charter schools.

    Given the track records of our traditional district schools in Minneapolis, I totally understand why families of color would prefer to take their chances elsewhere.

  • Nicholas Banovetz, MinnCAN says:

    April 9, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    Joe: Thanks for engaging people on this topic. Unfortunately, this “Tuesday Talk” misses the point by asserting generalizations about “reformers” that are factually incorrect. Here at MinnCAN, we believe great schools change everything. This applies to both district and charter public schools. We’ve been extremely candid since we launched two years ago that most charter schools in Minnesota are struggling. The vision of charter schools, which started in Minnesota, was to offer “laboratory” schools more flexibility in exchange for greater accountability. Generally, we’ve offered charters the flexibility but have been lax in the accountability. Moreover, the vision for charter schools was to identify best practices with increased flexibility and then consider making those best practices available to district schools. But we haven’t done much of this either. This legislative session MinnCAN has advocated for our state to incentivize charter school authorizers to shut down chronically poorly performing charter schools. On the flip side, some charter schools have proved they can close the achievement gap, including Hiawatha Leadership Academy and Harvest Prep. When a school can close an achievement gap, whether it’s district or charter, we should move mountains to replicate those strategies and models. Finally, seeing district and charters as an either-or conversation is black-and-white thinking. Kudos to organizations such as Minneapolis Public Schools and Charter School Partners for identifying and implementing opportunities to learn from one another, and address the challenges facing our k-12 system together.

  • Lyelle L. Palmer, Ph.D. says:

    April 9, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    The weakest part of charter schools is oversight.  Charter schools were intended to be experimental using different curriculum or instruction to provide data on effectiveness.  Data is supposed to be freely available on explicit aspects of the charter school’s program.  How many annual reports have you read regarding the effectiveness of the program—not the students.  What a surprise administrators confronted when many children with special needs applied in the hope of more progress.  The charter school usually has high hopes to show the results of a curriculum, but the problems of individualizing instruction torpedo the intentions of the founders whose experience is with general, not special education.  Most charter schools become copies of the regular district schools, with many students migrating in search of more progress (the parent’s motivations). 

    Before charter legislation, Rochester created some classrooms for the Montessori early childhood program.  Montessori teachers are trained at Montessori teacher training facilities for a year where they observe and teach children as they progress through the Montessori curriculum following instruction in the use of each didactic tool.  Some non-Montessori teachers wanted jobs in the Montessori classrooms, claiming that their MN teaching license made them fully qualified. 

    A charter school faces a problem in staffing in a similar situation.  Whatever explicit curriculum or instruction approach is championed by the charter school assumes that
    teachers will be fully prepared to produce results that represent the effects of the school’s specific method.  How many of the teachers are prepared or experienced in the explicit methodology espoused by the school?  Charter schools are intended to produce data that can be used for purposes of validity evaluations compared to regular district school/classes.  Obviously, this explicit evaluation and reporting is rare.

    Since each charter school is an experiment in a particular form of curriculum and/or instructional model, neither comparison between charter schools or in composites of charter schools are meaningful.  Adding to these differences between schools is the problem of the low achievers attempting to find remedial success or more effective Individual Educational
    Programs (IEPs).  The whole intent of charter school legislation has thus been compromised and hardly any of the reports of results can be used for any kind of valid analysis. 

    Understanding the purposes of charter schools is a start in reforming the charter movement.  Valid assessments and analysis of subgroups rather than composite results are required in order to consider the value of a particular school to the local taxpayers.

    Another problem is the mobility of students in inner city programs.  One Minneapolis charter school for low achieving and special needs has students for only a few years who then move on to suburban or regular schools.  The results is always that the scores are low and the school appears to have a failing student body.  The truth is, however, that the students have for the first time made a year of progress during the school year having entered two or three years behind grade level in the fall.  Three years are required for such children to catch up to expected levels of performance. 

    Careful definitions, evaluations and analyses are required in order to be able to fine tune or evaluate charter schools.  So far, the problems of charter schools are similar to holes in a leaky bucket of intentions and money.  We can do better, but not until we realize what is needed and demand it.  Proper oversight is essential and we do not have an objective and universal accountability system aligned with the original intentions of charter schools.  Do we need a state charter quality board?

  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    April 10, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Alec, your line about “pitting teacher against teacher and school against school” seems to show your strong Socialist leaning against competition within our education system. When we were education leaders it was that very competition between schools and districts that proved the validity of both curricula and teachers. Undermining that competition with this top down, one size fits all, Socialist, psychological, dribble we now call curricula has also undermined our education system. Children need to compete and to learn competition in all aspects of life not just on the sports field. Time to return to the Carnegie unit system that allows all children to learn as much as possible instead of this minimum competency garbage that is International Corporate and UN based and doesn’t work for anyone.

  • Alec says:

    April 10, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    We had unlimited and universal choice in Minnesota for 20+ years. After 20 years of a noble experiment, racial and socio-economic isolation is worse than when the experiment started.

    If choice is your magic bullet, that magic bullet not only missed the intended target but struck and killed countless innocent bystanders.

    Excellent work throwing out the tired socialist boogyman though. Kudos.

  • Lynnell Mickelsen says:

    April 11, 2013 at 9:03 am

    In response to Alec on April 10th at 10:30 p.m.

    I don’t believe in any one magic bullet. I think we need to try a bunch of different strategies.

    As far as racial social-economic isolation goes, that’s already happening in our traditional district schools in Minneapolis and I don’t blame the schools for this. Our cities and neighborhoods are also racially and economically segregated, so our schools simply reflect that.

    When it comes to choosing the best school for their kids, most parents will first focus on where their children are likely to be the most successful. As much as they may value diversity, most parents—brown or beige—will choose a high-achieving homogeneous school over an integrated low-achieving school.

    My first priority is giving kids the best possible education with our public dollars and I applaud all schools—-public charters or public district schools—who do this.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    April 11, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Might the answer lie in the increased use of magnet schools instead of charters?  This change would allow school districts to decide which schools to convert to magnets and which to close because of poor results.

    Magnets have an area of concentration (the arts, math/science/computers, a foreign language, for instance) in addition to or within the regular curriculum but otherwise are financed the same as other public schools and staffed by unionized teachers and principals. 

    The cost per pupil would then not be increased by paying “managers” higher salaries than principals normally get and teachers could not be fired at will but only let go if efforts by the union and school district to help them improve fail, as is the current pratice.

    Chicago’s school superintendent’s job title is “CEO.”  Can’t get much more corporate than that and must not.

  • Alec says:

    April 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    The reality is that the same people who could leverage the trait all system for success are the people who can leverage our confusing choice system for success. The people best positioned to leverage the choice system are those already ahead on the achievement gap.

    So, the hard answer, the tough choice, is to do whatever it takes to make sure all kids have a quality school,in their neighborhood. The solution is not to shuffle the deck chairs on the titanic so the same old people can scoot off into the life boats, while the rest fight over the sinking chairs.

    Again, I think the reformers might be well intentioned, but they focus, mainly, on things that have no correlate to academic achievement at high levels. They focus on human resources office reforms that require a lot of political and actual capital, while our state still only funds kindergartners as half of a human being in the funding formula.