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The Students’ Safety Net

January 19, 2011 By Valerie Ong, Education Fellow

Charter schools are free to take risks and innovate because traditional schools are in place if those plans don’t work out. In the next school year, we might see traditional schools stretching their safety nets even wider. Because of stricter state regulations and financial oversight on the charter schools’ authorizing organizations, there’s a realistic possibility that several Minnesota charters could close.

An earlier Minnesota 2020 article examined the impact on charters and their students if their authorizing agencies were not re-approved under new state regulations. Today’s article looks at the impact on traditional public schools who serve as the education system’s safety net when nontraditional schools close their doors.

While any school closure is unfortunate, especially for students, it ultimately illustrates the consequences of poor administrative planning and oversight decisions on the part of the charter school movement and charters’ authorizers.

Several charter schools have closed over the years due to financial mismanagement, low enrollment, and funding challenges. When these schools close, many students are left to find a new school, if they do not leave the academic system altogether. Traditional public schools are typically the default, as state law mandates them not to turn students away.

In light of today’s strong national advocacy for charter schools over “failing” traditional schools, it is unfair that the traditional schools are the ones responsible for absorbing students when charters shut down.

While school choice is welcomed, we must understand that the traditional schools (particularly in Minneapolis and St. Paul where many charter schools are located) often bear the burden of charters’ mistakes and shortfalls.

Knowing it’s a default, the Minneapolis school district has established student placement services to work with charter school students’ families, helping them understand their schooling options and identify schools that best fit students at their given levels.

While the department takes a proactive outreach approach to students and families of charter schools that are sponsored by the Minneapolis district, all students are welcome to seek the department’s services.

Minneapolis traditional schools have been prepared to absorb students over the years. Student Placement Services Director Ryan Fair believes that for successful student placement, “timing is everything.” If the department receives sufficient notification for student placement need, and if placements are not required in the middle of the school year, they can be better prepared to place students.

Given that most charter schools at risk of closure are located in North Minneapolis, where extra class space is available, Fair believes that the traditional schools will be able to accommodate potentially high numbers of student placement.

Traditional schools work to adapt placement changes. They will do what’s required to ensure every child who needs a seat in the classroom receives it. The public needs to realize that the traditional schools act as a safety net for charter schools. Students do not magically continue on with their studies. Instead, traditional schools are the schools stepping in when charter schools fall short.

Charter schools should not decry traditional schools and at the same time expect the traditional schools to be the public education’s support system. Education leaders must readily acknowledge that there may be a time when the charter school’s safety net is far too outstretched to provide for students, who are ultimately the ones to suffer academically.

We must remember that charter schools are a part of the public education system which makes charter school problems, public education problems. If we want to see our public schools thrive, every step to avoid additional burdens to Minnesota’s public school system--which includes good oversight and management practices--must be taken seriously.

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  • Paul Conklin says:

    January 25, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Does one have to take a pledge to hate charter schools to join M2020’s staff?  We’ve seen article after article about how charter school are mismanaged villains, stealing students and funding from the regular public schools.  Now they are the villains if they close and give those students back!  Talk about a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation.

    Lets remember that charter schools also have challenges, including the fact that as public schools they are required to take all comers, so that when a charter school opens they are flooded with applications from students who aren’t doing well in the regular schools.  Some of those are exactly the students that the charter school hopes to reach with their alternative program, but some are students who have emotional problems and learning disabilities that make them really tough to teach, and desperate parents enroll them in the charter school hoping that maybe this one will be their salvation.  So the charter school has to do its best to teach some very difficult students that don’t really fit the new techniques or topic the charter is trying to foster.  Those students are one reason charter schools struggle in their first few years, and may fail and send all the students back to the regular school district.

    So how about an article about a charter school that unburdened the regular district of some students that were falling through the cracks and gave them a chance at a better public education?  Examples are out there, if you are willing to look.