The fight over public charter schools at the legislature and its potential impact on Northfield

IMG_0725.JPGI saw 25B House Representative David Bly at the HideAway last week chatting with Tim Goodwin, academic director of Northfield School of Arts and Technology (ARTECH), one of the two public charter schools in Northfield (Prairie Creek is the other). It reminded me that there’s a big debate going at the legislature because of a bill in the Senate that caps the number of charter schools in MN.

The Strib had an editorial last week titled Charter school cap is unwarranted and the Pioneer Press ran an opinion piece titled Charter schools should be seen as complements, not threats.

The Strib’s Nick Coleman had a column earlier titled Limit the number of charter schools? It’s about time. In it, he quoted Northfielder Charlie Kyte:

“There are too many of them that suffer from really bad management, financial improprieties or sweetheart deals” involving charter-school sponsors who contract for services to their schools, says Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “It’s time to put the brakes on, and take a hard look to figure out what’s right or wrong.”

Kyte spent 20 years as a public school superintendent in Northfield and Eden Valley-Watkins, and helped get a charter school off the ground. He does not oppose charter schools in principle. But he says charter schools are costing public school systems millions in education funding and that they are increasingly drifting towards micro-experiments in neo-segregation that turn the old notion of a melting pot on its head, with schools aimed at Hmong children or Muslims or smaller subcategories, such as a school for Somali girls.

“We have all these laws to try to integrate society, and now we’re creating all these segregated little pots,” says Kyte. “The advocates of charter schools are relentless, and we’re going to have 500 in five years, if we don’t pause.

Citizens League Executive Director Sean Kershaw wrote a letter in response to Coleman’s column and his blog has been filled with charter school-related posts and comments in the past two weeks. His initial post titled Don’t let the legislature put a stop to school innovation has comments from Northfielder Randy Jennings, as well as a comment from the Executive Director of the Center for School Change at the Humphrey Institute, Joe Nathan.

I’d like to get some discussion going here on Locally Grown on this issue, and encourage other Northfield bloggers writing about it. Former Northfield School Board Member/former state legislator Ray Cox blogged on this issue a week ago. I’m hoping our legislator bloggers Rep. David Bly and Sen. Tom Neuville do, too, as well as blogger Charlie Kyte and Northfield school board blogger Diane Cirksena.

I’m a supporter of the charter schools ‘movement’ since the idea was first proposed. All four of my kids went to local charter schools. But I also supported the Northfield School Board’s decision to not renew their sponsorship of the now-defunct Village School.

After reading all the above-linked articles, blog posts, and comments, I’m against the cap. In a nutshell, here’s why.

Local school boards should consider all the ways that public education services can be effectively delivered in their territory. Traditionally, this has been done with the employees they hire to teach students in the buildings they own. But it can also be done by sponsoring charter schools. The school board doesn’t hire those teachers nor construct the buildings but they’re still charged with overseeing the services that get delivered. They can even help launch a charter school if they believe that it might be a more effective way to deliver a needed educational service.

So among other reasons, I’d like to continue to give full authority to our local school board to support/initiate/regulate public charter schools as they see fit. The proposed legislation would remove this option from them. Their ongoing support for ARTech and Prairie Creek charters and their wisdom in putting the Village School out of business shows to me that they can be trusted with this power. The legislature should not take it away from them.


  1. First off, I respect your opinion about the Village School. Everyone has their ideas about education, and while the school board voted to withdraw sponsorship of the Village School, I will tell you, that from doing a practicum there, and witnessing things first-hand, that the students there were some of the most independent, self-directed learners that I had ever encountered – even among adults. When a sixteen year old shows you nine stamps on his passport, or a seven-year-old talks to you about how she’s concerned about her friends in the public school who don’t get to use their imaginations as much, I think that there is something special.

    At the open meeting where the public could express their concerns to the board about the village school, the overwhelming majority had nothing but positive comments. They received a positive review from the state, which included a reviewer who was a former education commissioner for the State of Minnesota. It was a positive place of refuge for kids who were ridiculed or “tossed out” of the public school system.

    I do think however, that a lot of parents and school administrators, and the board were probably very threatened by a place that allowed children to be free to learn what they wanted, when they wanted, and how they wanted. They made decisions by consensus, and had a say in how the school was run and how they spent money. Children are not empowered in our schools now. They are more likely taught how to be obedient, so that they can be obedient in the workforce.

    These kids had (and still have) ideas and passion. For so many of them, they were thrown away, yet another time, by a school board who closed their school down.

    April 8, 2007
  2. Sean Hayford O'Leary said:

    Undigging the ax :-D. I, too, was disappointed with the School Board for denying sponsorship to the Village School.

    Scott said:
    “It was a positive place of refuge for kids who were ridiculed or ‘tossed out’ of the public school system.”

    Those were exactly my thoughts last spring. It wasn’t an ideal educational environment by any measure, but for so many kids, it was a last resort. Even if the Village School was as awful for students it’s been vilanized to be, surely dropping out of high school altogether was worse.

    April 9, 2007
  3. Sean Hayford O'Leary said:

    As for the moratorium, I’m ambivalent. I attended Nerstrand Elementary for one year and am now at my fourth year at ARTECH. These were good charter schools, but they aren’t all that way; we’ve all read the stories of disastrous school ventures.

    That said, I’m not sure we should stall educational change because of a few bad apples. Right now, there are hundreds of students whose lives might be changed by charter schools that can’t come into existence because of this law. That’s a hypothetical, yes, but it’s not an unreasonable one. Denying students their right to educational choice is destructive, especially with traditional districts barely scraping by (even Northfield, a relatively well-off district, has many classes with 40+ students).

    What I’d like to see most is a moratorium with a solid and short expiration — two or three years to examine charter schools more thorougly and to decide how we can better use them as part of our state’s educational system.

    April 9, 2007

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