Meet the new school, same as the old school?

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by James Sanna | February 19, 2009 • In between 60-plus charter schools, several private schools, and two school districts, I’ll bet you didn’t think we had enough choices for schools. A group of education reformers including Robert Wedl of Education Evolving, a Hamline University education reform think-tank, says we don’t.

Twin Cities Schools Notebook is the personal blog of James Sanna, a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. This blog aims to be a quality source of news and information about the Minneapolis and St Paul public schools, that aproaches the subject with fairness, thoroughness, and an occasional sense of humor.

Along with Representative David Bly (DFL – Northfield), they’ve proposed a bill that would essentially allow school boards to start “charter-like” schools that would still be within a district framework. Because the schools would still be part of the district, Wedl says, school boards could try out new ideas without worrying that they’d lose funding as pupils switch to these new schools. In case you’ve forgotten, each child in a traditional public or a charter public school is worth a certain amount of money every year to the school (and district) enrolls them. This is supposed to set up a competition between school districts and charter schools to offer the best education or the coolest programs to win parents and their students.

“Innovation really needs independence and flexibility,” says Wedl. “Because of the layers and layers of bureaucracy, you can’t really get innovation in a regular school district.”

But why do we need more choice? Wedl says it comes back to the changing nature of education in America, and the real need to compete with charters for the money that follows each student around like loyal puppy. “The age of one-size-fits-all schools is over… [the proposal] is like a ‘split screen,” he said. “On one side you’ve got the traditional schools (which you’ll be constantly improving), but on the other side, you can be trying out new ideas” like a performing arts school or a school that tries to close the achievement gap

One portion of the bill has both St Paul and Minneapolis teachers’ unions excited. The schools created under the “New Minnesota Schools” bill would be “site-governed” – the staff would decide curriculum, leadership model, and control the budget. While representatives of both unions said they have no official position on the bill yet, they were supportive. St Paul Federation of Teachers’ President said she was personally “excited.”

“You have to have a teacher population very committed to running a teacher-run school,” cautioned SPFT President Mary Cathryn Ricker. “Some teachers are very excited but some would just as soon have a quality administrator running the school.”

As for the bill’s fans in the legislature, Rep. Bly said it was too early to handicap the bill, but he mentioned that several members of the House’s Education Oversight Committee had expressed support. Wedl said that he and other supporters of the bill had held “conversations” with the Minneapolis school district. They were not supportive, he said, “but we’re hopeful they’ll jump on board.”

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