Charters – a valuable public school option

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

Something unusual and important is happening in many Minnesota suburbs and small towns: the significant increase in the number of students attending charter public schools – an idea that started here in Minnesota, 25 years ago this month. These are free, public, non-sectarian schools open to all, with no admissions tests.
Minnesota charter K-12 enrollment grew in the past 10 years from 17,544 in 2004-05 to 47,747 in 2014-15. Meanwhile K-12 enrollment in non-charter public schools decreased from 809,787 in 2004-05 to 795,185 in 2014-15.
Nationally, the number of students enrolled in charters has grown from less than 100 in 1992 to an estimated 2.6 million in 2014-15, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which offers information here:
National Gallup polls consistently find more than 60 percent of Americans support the charter idea. Although charters are controversial for some, the majority of Americans would agree with what Nekima Levy-Pounds, Minneapolis NAACP president and St. Thomas law professor, recently wrote to me, in part, via email: “It’s important for parents to have a choice in identifying schools that will be the best fit for their children.”
May 1-7 is National Charter School Week. President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators have issued proclamations explaining that charters “play an important role in our country’s education system.” The full proclamation is here:
While thousands of charter public schools have opened since 1991 in 42 states, most are found in cities. In Minnesota, many suburban and small town families have access to the free education offered in charters as well as traditional schools.
I don’t think either district or charter option is inherently better. We should be learning from the most effective schools, district or charter.
Charters are found in suburbs such as Blaine, Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Coon Rapids, Crystal, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Ramsey, Richfield and Stillwater. They’re found in small and medium-size cities like Cologne, Elk River, Forest Lake, Isanti, Maple Lake, Monticello, Otsego and Owatonna. .
More information about all 164 Minnesota charters is available from the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools website.
Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, told me: “There’s no single reason why families select charters. For some, it’s a particular feature, like smaller class size and overall smaller school size. Others like the Montessori, Classical or International Baccalaureate curriculum. Some families want their children in a language immersion school that offers another language.”
Vanessta Spark, executive director of Spectrum High School in Elk River, shared a parent survey her school conducted in the 2014-15 school year. The most frequently cited reasons for selecting Spectrum were small school size and high academic standards.
Nearby charter public schools include:
Spectrum High School in Elk River, 6-12,\
North Lakes Academy in Forest Lake, 5-12,
Lakes International Language Academy in Forest LAke, preschool-8 this year, preschool-12 starting in August,
Art & Science Academy in Isanti, K-7,
Kaleidoscope in Otsego, K-11 this year, K-12 in fall 2016,
There are few things as American as the ability to choose – whether it’s where to live, who we’ll elect to office or what job we have. We rightly value freedom. Fortunately, Minnesota has decided to provide families with a variety of public school options. .
Minnesota wisely gives educators the chance to create the kinds of schools they think make sense for students. This gives more educators the power to use their professional insights and, most important, helps more students succeed.

Joe Nathan is a senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at