By Joe Nathan
“Breaking Bad” TV show actor Steven Quezada had several strong messages for about 4,000 educators recently gathered to discuss charter public schools. At a conference sponsored by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (publiccharters.org), Quezada began, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for recognizing that children learn in different ways.”
Then he talked about himself: “I wasn’t one of the people who could learn by reading the chapter, answering the questions at the end and then taking a test. I needed a project-based approach. I found that in theater.”
Quezada grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s currently serving on their local school board. His youngsters attend a local charter public school. He pointed out, “There’s no war between charters and public schools because charters are public schools.”
Recognizing that there’s no single best school for all students and providing strong options are central to the charter public school movement. Creating the opportunity to establish charters is one of Minnesota’s most important educational contributions to the nation.
Since 1992, the number of charters has grown from one, in St. Paul serving less than 100 students, to more than 6,000 schools serving more than 2 million students. In Minnesota alone, over the last decade, the number of K-12 students attending charters has grown from fewer than 10,000 to more than 41,000. Meanwhile, the number of K-12 students attending Minnesota district public schools declined from about 835,000 to 785,000. So the majority of students continue in district schools. But the charter sector of public education is growing.
Whether it’s Apple Valley, Blaine, Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Cologne, Columbia Heights, Coon Rapids, Crystal, Eden Prairie, Elk River, Forest Lake, Hopkins, Maple Grove, Minnetonka, Monticello, Otsego, Ramsey, Richfield, St. Louis Park or Stillwater, charters increasingly are found all over the state. A complete list of Minnesota charters is available here: http://bit.ly/1okoXlA.
Charters are based on three central American ideas:
– People should have a chance to carry out their dreams.
– People who want to try something new must be responsible for results.
– Americans have freedom within some limits.
These ideas helped contribute to the growth of charters nationally and in Minnesota. That doesn’t mean every charter is great. More than 40 in Minnesota have closed, in part because they did not handle finances well and in part because they were not able to produce increases in student achievement.
Minnesota and other states have refined laws governing charters since 1992. As Ember Reichgott Junge, former Minnesota state senator who authored the nation’s first charter law, told me last week, “It’s really sad” that some unethical people entered the charter world.
And they have. So charter laws have been revised to, for example, clearly prohibit conflicts of interest from charter board members, and to require yearly outside audits that must be made public.
Ted Kolderie, a St. Paul author who has helped develop the charter idea, notes: “State laws vary. Some need to be improved.”
Charters have helped encourage new, strong options within district schools. That’s great. Because both district and charters vary, I don’t think it makes sense to argue about which is better. There are great districts and great charters.
But whether it’s an arts-focused, a language immersion, a Montessori or a project-based school, we’ve learned the value of public school choice. As Quezada emphasized: “Children learn in different ways. They need options.”
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]