Nathan: What does growth in charter schools mean

Widespread adoption of cell phones and computers helps explain a startling statistic: In the last decade, the number of Minnesota k-12 students attending charter public schools has increased more than 29,0000, while the number of students attending district public schools has declined by more than 45,000. That’s according to a new study the Center for School Change did, based on data from the Minnesota Department of Education website. The report is available at

What does this trend mean for families and for Minnesota public education? The majority of Minnesota youngsters still attend district public schools. However, as with phones and computers, many families are looking for something different, and they hope, better.

But neither district nor charter public schools are always “better.” “Charter public school” like “district public school” tells you nothing about the curriculum, philosophy or instructional approach. Comparing is about as useful as trying to decide which has better gas mileage, leased or purchased cars. Because there are enormous differences within each category, the comparison does not make sense.

But the charter movement has allowed educators and parents to create new, and in some cases more personalized, distinctive options. That has helped many youngsters and provided valuable opportunities for educators.

That’s in part why Minnesota charter k-12 enrollment rose in the last decade, while district k-12 enrollment declined. It also helps explain why charter enrollment in U.S. charters rose from less than 100 students twenty years ago, to more than two million in the 2011-12 school year. Many Minnesota charters offer something “different.”

Wise school districts have responded, in part, by offering distinctive programs. For example, ISD 196 offers the “Zoo School” for 11th and 12th graders, and Anoka-Hennepin offers the STEP program for high school students.

Forest Lake has a Montessori option. Minnetonka provides a Chinese option. Edina offers a French Immersion elementary school. Cambridge/Isanti has School for Four Seasons and “the Minnesota Center” for middle school students.

At least some of these, such as the Forest Lake Montessori, were opened in response to the possibility that parents and educators would set up a charter if the district did not respond. The charter movement has helped some educators and districts recognize that there is no single perfect kind of school for all students.

Some educators have recognized that identical does not mean not equal educational opportunity. Saying “one size or format fits all” is like saying everyone can wear a size eight shoe comfortably.

Enrollment trends suggest that wise educators will look for more effective ways to organize learning and teaching. Students don’t need more district or charter public schools. They need more personalized, excellent public schools.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]