Gregorya Patterson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul), September 15, 2009
The Math and Science Academy in Woodbury has become known as a successful charter school that serves up a specific curriculum to students with a technical bent since opening at the beginning of this decade. In Eden Prairie, Eagle Ridge Academy is developing a reputation for its classical education, and in Bloomington, Beacon Preparatory School is trying to do the same thing.
In addition to being charter schools with specific missions, these institutions share another trait: They are in suburbs, far from the urban educational turmoil that charter schools were, in part, designed to solve. Their students are predominantly white, and their test scores above average.
Initially, charter schools were intended to boost education in troubled urban schools, giving their students more choice and more innovative teaching methods. They have helped in many cases. But an unintended result has brought more choice to many suburban areas, which already had comparatively good schools.
Now, there are more charter schools in the metro-area suburbs than in either Minneapolis or St. Paul. Educators and policymakers agree that the rise of suburban charter schools has been surprising, but they disagree over whether it’s a good thing.
A school of their own
“The growth of charter schools in the suburbs is a pretty interesting trend we’ve seen in the last six years,” said Morgan Brown, assistant commissioner at the state’s Department of Education, who is in charge of school choice.
While the department hasn’t studied the trend closely, Brown said suburbanites are interested in charter schools because some public school districts where they reside don’t offer as many choices as even the public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where residents can choose from a hodgepodge of magnet programs, and more private schools.
Moreover, charter schools increase segregation in both city and suburb, harming chances of low-income students to get a better education, said Myron Orfield, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty.
Advertisement Calling suburban charter schools a version of “white flight,” Orfield said many of the suburban charter schools tend to have even fewer students of color than the public school districts in which they are located. Others who have criticized charter school outcomes say they are less certain about the role of race.
When charter schools manage to help students reach high academic standards, they also should be called upon to help low-income and minority students do the same by bringing more of them into their student body, said state Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL- Woodbury.
That is because charter schools are publicly funded and get significant startup money as well. Other states, including Illinois and Missouri, have greater restrictions on where charter schools may be located. Illinois has few outside Chicago, and Missouri allows them only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Such strategies may be worthy of consideration in Minnesota, Saltzman said.