OPINION | Making the right educational choice


Which side are you on? It’s a simple, straightforward question meriting a clear, declaratory answer. Here’s mine; I’m for education. 

I’m for public education. I’m for well-funded public education. I’m for strong public schools that expect the best from students, teachers, administrators and staff. I’m for schools that compensate teachers as professionals; that compensate non-teaching staff as the critical learning partners that they are. I’m for students who challenge teachers and I’m for teachers that not only rise to the challenge but exceed it. I’m for the principal who has the resources to nudge a good idea’s budget up an extra ten percent. I’m for the school that bends over backwards to accommodate learning and ideas but isn’t afraid to put its foot down.

I’m for the five-day school week. I’m for longer school years. I’m for more, not less testing. I’m for more writing in every grade and subject. I’m for quantitative literacy. I’m for linear, narrative history. I’m for hard novels and reading Shakespeare out loud. I’m for consumer education and shop class. I’m for band. I’m for wrestling. I’m for German club. I’m for field trips. I’m for chalk and white board markers.

So, yes, I’m for education. I note this because, right now, Minnesota faces a false choice that conservative public policy advocates frame as charter schools versus traditional public schools. That’s a fallacy. The true question asks, are you for or against public education?

Seven of Minnesota’s 14 school districts sponsoring charter schools plan to discontinue their sponsorship. Most likely, these decisions will effectively close the affected charter schools, forcing students and families to choose different schools and putting good teachers out of work.

The school districts cite cost as their chief reason for discontinuing charter school sponsorship. We shouldn’t be surprised. Over the past decade, regular educational funding reductions have forced very difficult choices on schools. Consequently, class sizes have grown; long-term school maintenance is deferred; course offerings are eliminated; staff are laid-off and every budget has been reduced.

School district sponsorship of charter schools carries a cost, one impacted by the same negative public funding environment experienced by the district’s traditional schools. With nearly every rural school contemplating a four-day school week in its future if funding doesn’t improve, we shouldn’t be surprised that school district charter school sponsorship is falling to cost-cutting measures.

Earlier this week, a friend asked if we, Minnesota 2020, were happy that these charter schools were effectively being closed. I was surprised by the question.

No, we’re not happy. Yes, we have well-documented concerns with charter school business management practices. We think that charter schools’ own audit data suggest a need for greater accountability and increased Minnesota Department of Education oversight. But, we’re for school choice and charter schools are an important part of families’ school choice options.

Conservative public policy works to undermine confidence in public education, smoothing the path for easing school funding obligations which require responsible revenue streams from the Minnesota public. It’s a self-reinforcing downward-spiral. Attacking public schools diminishes public confidence leading to reduced public support, further facilitating additional attacks.

Minnesota isn’t choosing between charter schools and traditional public schools. We’re choosing between a strong public education and something less, something weaker and inadequate that compromises Minnesota’s prosperity. We face a choice between building strong communities with public investment’s rewards accruing to public investors versus those rewards disproportionately flowing to a privileged few.

Minnesota is heading in the wrong direction. We see it in growing class sizes, compromised student performance and fewer programs. We see it in funding cuts that force school districts to end charter school sponsorship. We see it in the false choice pitting publicly-funded charter schools against publicly-funded traditional schools, driven by conservative public policy that undermines public education, whatever its form.

The right question is, which side are you on? If you’re for public education and the good that it’s done, does and will do for Minnesota, then you’re on the right side. Don’t fall for the false choice. Well-funded public education moves Minnesota forward. Anything less forces retreat.