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Charter school competition heats up in Minneapolis
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David Jennings, interim superintendent for Minneapolis Public Schools, says the district must respond better to the educational needs of the families choosing charter schools. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Minneapolis school district officials are trying to slow the exodus of students to city charter schools. A report issued last month quantified for the first time what district officials long suspected - that they're losing students to charter schools by the hundreds. The report prompted district leaders to begin addressing the charter school competition. But charter school advocates say the district is using test scores and legislative proposals to mount an unfair attack.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Minneapolis public school officials say enrollment in the state's largest school district is just over 43,000 students. That's down about 5 percent from a year ago. Some of the decline is due to a smaller school-age population, but charter schools also factored into the drop. Enrollment in the city's 17 charter schools grew by one thousand students and now totals about 5,500.

Interim Superintendent David Jennings says the district could lose another 10,000 students over the next five years if the trend is allowed to continue.

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Image Patty Brostrom

"There will always be charter schools, and there will always be new charter schools coming on, and old charter schools going off, and some parents will continue to to choose them or at least give it a try," Jennings said. "So, I don't think that we can ever respond in a way that eliminates that option. But I do think we can respond in a way that mitigates against what would happen if we did nothing."

Charter schools are public schools with a specific academic focus, run independently from school districts, often by parents and teachers. State funding follows the student. So, each transfer to a charter school means deeper budget problems for the Minneapolis school district.

Jennings says the district must respond better to the educational needs of the families choosing charter schools. He also wants the public to have a clear picture of school performance. A recent school district analysis of test scores showed students in traditional public schools topped students in district-sponsored charter schools.

At Minnesota Transitions Charter School, a technology-focused program serving students at four locations in Minneapolis, enrollment has grown from 250 to 850 in just two years. Patty Brostrom, the school's deputy superintendent, says parents want choices. She says families are drawn by the small class sizes and specialized programs.

Brostrom, who's also president of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, disputes the school district's test scores comparisons. She claims the data was incomplete and misleading.

"I think that Minneapolis is trying to present that their schools are doing good work," Brostrom said. "Boy, is it a distortion? I would venture to say yes it is. A deliberate distortion? Probably."

Brostrom is also concerned about recent school board discussions on changing state charter school law. The Minneapolis school district's proposed legislative agenda for 2004 includes requests to limit the transportation and special education services districts must now provide to charter students, both potential cost savers.

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Image Joe Nathan

Superintendent Jennings says the district also wants charter students taking all the same tests as district students, to make school comparisons easier.

"If the goal is to create a competitive environment that serves kids, then it's time to re-examine how they're really working and to make sure that we create a level playing field in this competitive dynamic that the Legislature's trying to create," Jennings said.

Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, says school districts should be learning lessons from charter schools, not trying to undermine them. He says the legislative proposals are disappointing but not surprising.

"If I we're on the Minneapolis board, I would be doing some hard thinking," Nathan said. "And I wouldn't be attacking the charter schools as they're trying to do. I wouldn't be presenting highly misleading information as they're trying to do. What I'd be doing, is take a careful look at why families are going to the charter school. Why is it?"

Minneapolis school board members are scheduled to discuss charter school policy at a meeting Tuesday. They'll finalize their legislative agenda in early January.

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