Mpls/St. Paul charter school enrollment shows double digit increase; more than 90% provide own transportation

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Latest information from charter public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul shows double digit increases in enrollment compared to 2007-2008– an increase of 17.7% in Minneapolis, and more than 20% in St Paul. This information comes from a Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute survey of charters, carried out in mid-September. The enrollment figures will be updated for the official count that is submitted later this fall to the Minnesota Department of Education.

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For the record

by Mary Turck

Nathan vs. TCDP

When we first heard from Joe Nathan with charges that our July 6 article on declining enrollment in Minneapolis Public schools and St. Paul Public Schools was inaccurate, we began investigating the charges he made. He is correct in stating that we made a mistake in characterizing the law.

Our July 6 article referred to statements that “the district is legally required to provide transport for charter students from school to their front doors.” That is incorrect. The law does not require that the school district provide door-to-door transport for charter school students. The law requires only that the district provide transportation if a charter school requests it. That transportation does NOT need to be door-to-door, though, as a practical matter, that often happens.

Nathan made many allegations about what was true and untrue about a survey cited in the article and about Minneapolis school board members, but would not furnish us information to back up what he said. So we did not print what he said as “the truth,” but continued to do our own research. Some of the results of that research are published today in MPS ditches charter students.

As we got closer to publishing the result of our continuing reporting, Nathan said that he had the results of a comprehensive charter school survey conducted in September by the Center for School Change, which he directs. The Center for School Change is part of the Humphrey Institute, which is part of the University of Minnesota. These are taxpayer-funded institutions.

We asked Joe Nathan for information from the survey (which was conducted two months after the article he criticizes). He refused. We asked for an interview. He refused. Instead, he asked us to pay him to write an article about the survey. I said no. He submitted this article.

Busing: What’s the issue?

MPS buses its own students. They usually have to walk a few blocks to a “neighborhood” bus stop.

Charter schools usually have “corner” bus stops, which means that a student is picked up at the corner of the block where the student lives. Some charter school transportation coordinators explained that their students live in neighborhoods where parents have fears for their safety, and that’s why they have corner pick-up. Some pick up kindergarten or special needs students at their homes.

Even when MPS provides the busing, charter school students often have corner pick-up. That may be because there are fewer charter school students in any given neighborhood. Thus, it makes sense to have 10 MPS students who live in a neighborhood walk to a centrally located bus stop. It makes no sense to have a single charter school student in a neighborhood walk three blocks to a bus stop, rather than having the bus come to the student.

The survey referred to in our July 6 story asked parents about the top three reasons for choosing charter schools. Parents could, and did, identify multiple reasons. The same number–43 percent–identified busing and academic achievement as reasons. (Minneapolis Public Schools Strategic Planning Update, Summary of Phase 2 “Current Situation” findings, September 25, 2007, p. 18)

Given the description of busing and parents’ concerns about safety, that’s hardly surprising. Charter school staff interviewed for our follow-up article stated clearly that safety concerns were important to their families and that a corner pick-up instead of a neighborhood pick-up was an important response to those concerns.

What is surprising is Joe Nathan’s insistence that there is something suspect about acknowledging that charter school parents consider transportation an important factor in choosing a school. That seems like a rational choice. What is the problem in acknowledging the importance of transportation?

Minneapolis Public Schools changed the rules on busing for the 2007-2008 school year. At that point, they told charter schools that MPS buses would deliver charter school students on a third run, which would get them to school at 10:15 or 10:30 every day. Understandably, charter schools were unhappy with this late start to their school day.

By 2008-2009, only a few of the charter schools located in Minneapolis still used the MPS busing. That saves the MPS district big bucks, since busing is expensive. MPS is required by law to provide busing, if a charter school requests it, but is not required to provide it on any set schedule.

For a more complete description of busing issues and of MPS action to discourage charter schools from requesting busing, see MPS ditches charter students.

The same CSC study found that more than 90% of charter students in Minneapolis are transported by the charter schools themselves – a fact that many people find surprising given information coming from several sources, including a wide-shared but misleading TC Daily Planet article.

Let’s begin with enrollment data, before turning to failures in the Daily Planet’s fact checking.

Interviews with all 65 charters in Minneapolis and St Paul, conducted by CSC staff in the first two weeks of September, 2008 showed that the number of students attending charters in Minneapolis increased to more than 9000, an increase of more than 17% from 2007-2008 to the current school year. Meanwhile, in St Paul, the increase in charter enrollment was more than 20%.

CSC research last spring showed that in both Minneapolis and Minnesota, charters enrolled a higher percentage of low income, limited English speaking and students of color than district public schools. Moreover, over the last decade, the number of students attending charters increased statewide by more than 23,000, while the number of k-12 students attending district public schools declined by more than 50,000. Overall, more than 790,000 students attend district public schools, while about 30,000 attend charters.

Both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have endorsed charters. Indeed, Senator Obama reiterated his support for charter public schools earlier this year in a speech to the National Education Association (the nation’s largest teacher’s union) The nation’s first charter, City Academy is in St. Paul. The number of charters has grown in 1, in 1992, to 154 in Minnesota, and more than 3000 in the nation. The number of students attending charters has grown from less than 100 in 1992 to more than 1.3 million nationally in 2007-2008.

Charters vary widely in Minnesota – from the state’s first elementary Chinese immersion public school (Yinghua Academy) to the state’s only grades 7-12 Montessori school (Great River), to the nation’s first charter) operated as a teacher owned cooperative (Minnesota New Country School)

Research by the Center for School Change showed between 2000 and 2003, the vast majority of charters sponsored by the Minneapolis public schools showed more progress in reading or math, or both, than the district public school average.

This is not to say that every charter is a great place – about 20 have been closed because of low performance, financial irregularities, or a combination of these two.

Let’s now turn to the July 6 TC Daily article by James Sanna. This article has been widely circulated but contains several important inaccuracies. In this article, Sanna wrote that Minneapolis School board chair Lydia Lee, “ citing independent studies commissioned by the district, (Lee) claimed that 40% of parents who pull their children from district schools choose charters because the district is legally required to provide transport from school to their front doors.”

Here are several problems with this sentence.

• State law does NOT require districts to provide transport from school to their front doors.” When I asked her about this, Lee responded via email that she had been misquoted.
• After the article appeared, this author and another person challenged the assertion, citing the state law. Sanna has acknowledged via email that the state law does not include this requirement.

• Three Minneapolis School board members contacted for this story were able to identify only one study, not the “studies” cited in Sanna’s article. Sanna has been unable to more than one study.

• The study Sanna cited did NOT ask parents if they selected charters because of transportation provided by the district, or transportation to the front door. It only asked what were major reasons families selected schools. Transportation was cited by 43% of the families as ONE of the reasons they selected a school – a not surprising finding given that more than 80% of the families in Minneapolis selecting charters for their students are eligible for free/reduced price lunches.

• No where in Sanna’s article (or in subsequent email conversations with this author) did Sanna answer the question: How many families with children in Minneapolis charter did McKinsey survey?
Jill Stever-Zeitlin- who worked with the McKinsey group that did the survey and now works for Minneapolis Public Schools, responded that a total of 110 families whose children attended charters responded to the district’s survey – and that the respondents did not necessarily represent a random sample of families. In 2007-2008, more than 7700 students attended charters in Minneapolis.

CSC surveyed all Minneapolis and St Paul charters in summer, and September, 2008. In 2007-2008, 4 charters enrolling less than 500 students (out of the more than 7700 students attending charters in Minneapolis) asked the district to transport its students – as is their option under state law. For 2008-2009, 4 charters in Minneapolis, and one in St Paul – a total of 5 of the 65 charters operating in the two cities, are asking district assistance to transport their students.

Minnesota’s charter public school legislation, first adopted in 1992, contained a compromise about funding and transportation. Legislators decided not to permit charter public schools to levy taxes (as district schools may do). Thus, charters receive substantially less per pupil that district public schools that have referendums in place. In return, the legislature agreed to require districts to provide transportation to charters within their district IF the charter asked them to do this. From 1992, some charters have provided their own transportation.

District officials have, in some cases complained about this requirement. They assert it costs more to transport charter students than district students (while acknowledging that the districts have authority to levy taxes that can be used to cover transportation and other costs, and charters do not have this authority. Charters also receive virtually none of the funds generated by local property taxes.

Minneapolis School Board member Chris Stewart, who helped this author obtain a copy of the survey cited by Ms. Lee, was “quite surprised” to learn that less than 10% of charter students in Minneapolis were transported by the district in 2007-2008. When this information was shared with foundation officials and parents during the summer of 2008, they also were quite surprised.

But Stewart checked with MPS district officials, who agreed with CSC figures for 2007-2008. After his story was challenged, Sanna re-examined his story.

The TC Daily Planet editor declined to pay this author for this story. Sanna is being by TC Daily Planet paid for his work, and has asked several times for information that CSC gathered be given to him. While agreeing to talk with him, CSC believes it important that information go directly to readers, without going through Mr. Sanna’s sometimes inaccurate filter. We believe the public deserves the most accurate information available.

Joe Nathan, a Minneapolis Public School aide and St. Paul Public School teacher/administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota. He welcomes reactions: jnathan@umn.edu