State's trend of growing charter school enrollment reflected across country

A new report out Wednesday shows significant growth in charter school enrollment across the country and here in Minnesota.

More than two million U.S. students now attend the publicly funded but independently run schools, including nearly 40,000 students in Minnesota.

The report, from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, offers up some eye-popping statistics.

Charter schools in Duluth, Robbinsdale, St. Paul and Minneapolis saw double-digit enrollment growth in the 2011-2012 school year compared to the year before.

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There's no single reason for those spikes. In fact, enrollment at charter schools in Minnesota has been growing at similar paces in each of the last 10 years. Charter enrollment has tripled over the past decade and is now just shy of 40,000 students.

Charter school advocate Joe Nathan is working to create partnerships with traditional public schools through his organization, The Center for School Change, based in St. Paul.

Nathan said charters have grown simply because they offer an alternative to traditional public schools, which he said are often failing.

"The charters enroll a higher percentage of low-income kids, a higher percentage of the students who don't speak English, a higher percentage of students who are in families of color," Nathan said. "It's clearly families whose kids have not done so well in district public schools that are looking."

The charter school movement began in Minnesota 20 years ago with the creation of City Academy in St. Paul, the first charter school in the country. The school is still open today.

Over the years, critics of charter school have come to see them as competition to traditional public schools. When families choose to send their kids to a charter school, state funding follows the student.

And that's hurt traditional school districts, especially in St. Paul and Minneapolis, said Myron Orfield, a law professor and director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty.

"They take the students from the public schools and they take the funds with them," Orfield said. "And the public schools then have their fixed costs; they have all these teachers that have union contracts and buildings that they have to maintain. They have to really downsize fast in a disorderly way."

Orfield's research casts a critical eye on the performance of charter schools. It shows that charters rarely outperform traditional public schools and contribute to the segregation of students.

Michelle Walker, chief of staff of St. Paul Public Schools, said her district supports school choice, but would rather have students attend traditional public schools in St. Paul.

"We'd love to have as much of the market share of enrollment as possible, and to have families choose St. Paul schools as their first choice," Walker said.

Walker said charter schools contributed to declining enrollment in the St. Paul district in the past, but that now St. Paul is experiencing increased enrollment, particularly in early grades. That's due in part to the greater variety of programs her district has begun to offer, she said.

In Minneapolis, where one in five students now attends a charter school, the district is striking up a relationship with charters.

The district is an authorizer, essentially a sponsor, for four charter schools. The district has agreed to authorize several more schools over the next decade.

There is value in working with charters, even if students choose charters over the Minneapolis district, said Sara Paul, director of the Office of New Schools in Minneapolis. She said the growth in charter enrollment has forced traditional school districts to rethink their "us vs. them" attitude.

"If we are working to learn and using them as a vehicle for R&D and finding ways that we can improve on the rest of our system, and take those best practices and replicate those," Paul said, "there's tremendous value back to the system."

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