FREE SPEECH ZONE | Many Charters succeeding over time with low income and other students

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Why does the TC Daily Planet and Minnesota 2020 ignore what the Star Tribune recently found: 6 of the 10 metro area public schools that are “Beating the Odds” in reading and math with low income students are charter public schools. TC Planet promised to publish positive news on charters. Here is exciting news. Charter Public Schools have helped low income inner city students.

The Free Speech Zone offers a space for contributions from readers, without editing by the TC Daily Planet. This is an open forum for articles that otherwise might not find a place for publication, including news articles, opinion columns, announcements and even a few press releases.

One of the schools cited by the Star Tribune was Minnesota Transitions Elementary School (MTS), which is more than 90 % low income and 90 % students of color. As superintendent, I am exceedingly proud of these hard working students who “beat the odds” I am proud of the teachers and programs that beat the odds.

I’d like to help TC Daily Planet readers understand what’s happening. I would also like to question ongoing criticisms of charters by John Fitzgerald, who is published constantly by TC Daily Planet. Don’t readers deserve to know more about schools that are beating the odds, and to hear a different perspective about charters?

Fitzgerald and Minnesota 2020 have shown no interest whatever in how MTS or other charters producing higher student achievement has done this. Instead, they continue to use misleading information.

People deserve accurate information. Most parents see their children as making more progress over time in public charters than in district schools. Recently a national report from a group based at Stanford (that Fitzgerald cites) looked at Minnesota charters. It found that African American students did better in Minnesota public charters than in district public schools. It also found that by the time a student was in a school for three years, she/he was making more progress than in the average district public school. The report is not all negative as implied by Mr. Fitzgerald.

This isn’t surprising. It takes an enormous amount of effort to get a school up and running. We in the charter community need to help people start stronger. But the first year or two of any school, district or charter, is really tough. More than 40% of the charters studied by the national report were in their first or second year.

Of course, many families are not looking just for high-test scores. They are looking for a school that will respect and respond to them. Minnesota Department of Education shows that charters, averaging less than 300 students, are much smaller than district public schools. Considerable research compiled by, among others, the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, shows that when comparing similar groups of students, those attending small schools have higher achievement, are safer, have fewer problems with drugs, and have higher graduation rates. Parents and faculty also like smaller schools better than bigger ones.

In Minneapolis and Minnesota, charter public schools enroll a higher percentage of low income, English Language learners and students of color than do district public schools. As the Star Tribune noted recently, 6 of the 10 Metro area public schools doing the best with these categoriesof students are charter public schools. Charters also made up half of the schools showing the largest increases in reading and math scores.

The number of kids attending charters like the Minnesota Transition Elementary continues to grow thus forcing regular districts to innovate. I am impressed and encouraged by the response of some district educators to public charters. For example,

•Minnesota Legislature recently passed a law allowing districts to create their own self-governing schools. This is direct response to the success of public charter schools.

• Forest Lake, after initially rejecting some parents’ request for a Montessori school within school, agreed with parent request. This after parents said they would go charter if the district didn’t respond.

• Rochester, in responding to parents proposing a Core Knowledge School incorporated this proposal in their district.

• St. Paul District schools established a French Language immersion school after seeing the popularity of a German Language immersion charter.

Fitzgerald and Mn 2020 do not understand the value of competition.

Recently, Fitzgerald and MN 2020 blasted charters on financial issues. This despite the fact that both the Minnesota Legislative Auditor and Minnesota Department of Education have found almost exactly the same percentage of district and charters operating in debt (less than 10%).

In a recent Star Tribune column Fitzgerald continues his criticisms, and demands that Minnesota charter directors be licensed administrators. Many of the most effective charter administrators in this and other states are not licensed, including Sheila Casey. She directs Minnesota Transitions Elementary, one of the 10 schools the Star Tribune cited as a “Beating the Odds” School in reading and math. So is Bill Wilson, first African American to serve as St. Paul City Council chair, and founder/director of Higher Ground. So is Jon Gutierrez, founder and director of the very high performing St. Croix Prep.

Kate Barr, a former banker hired by several Minnesota foundations to help strengthen non-profits in Minnesota, reviewed the Minnesota 2020 report on charter finance. She has worked with non-profits all over the state, including some charters. Here are some of her comments about this report:

“It seems clear to me that the report’s author does not have a sound understanding of school finance, nonprofit financial management or audit standards and terminology.

The bulk of the findings in the report come from the management letters that accompany financial audits. The existence of a management letter is not an irregularity on its own and is not an indication that the school “cannot successfully pass a financial audit”. .

Some management letter findings are more significant than others. In our experience, in fact, about half of nonprofits with budgets less than $3 million have a “segregation of duties” finding in their management letter. Does MN 2020 think that state contracts and grants should be withheld from all of these nonprofits as well?

The lack of understanding of school and nonprofit finance runs through the report. As an example, the sentence on page 16, “Overall financial health can be determined by whether the charter school has enough collateral to maintain deposit insurance.” There is no connection between financial health and compliance with deposit insurance collateral requirements.”

Morgan Brown of the Minnesota Department of Education pointed out that many small Minnesota rural districts have some of the same items in their audits. Where is Fitzgerald’s criticism of them? When will he demand their board minutes and system audits?

I respectfully suggest Mr. Fitzgerald and Minnesota 2020 contact Kate Barr and Morgan Brown about school finance and accounting. I would suggest that Minnesota 2020 – and TC Daily – devote more time to learning from successful district or charter public schools – and less time attacking charters.