Thousands of families shifting to Minnesota charter public schools


by Joe Nathan, 6/23/08 • Minneapolis charter schools like Sojourner Truth and Minnesota Transitions and Harvest Prep are part of a strong trend in Minnesota public education. Thousands of families, especially low income, limited English speaking and families of color are shifting their youngsters from district to charter public school schools. Last year, the net gain of charter enrollment set a new record of more than 4,000 students, while enrollment in district public schools continued to decrease. While not all charters are doing a terrific job with students, the enrollment trend is startling.

Some people have called me, and the Center for School Change, where I work, “charter boosters.” I respectfully disagree

Many reports on our website ( describe outstanding district or charter public schools. I’m trying to promote better public education, and recognize that there are terrific, average and mediocre district and charter public schools. We should be learning more from the best public schools.

Unquestionably, the vast majority of students are still in district public schools. However, ten years ago, 847,339 students attended Minnesota district public schools, K-12, while only 4,915 students attended charter public schools. Last year, the charter enrollment had climbed to 28,026, while district enrollment was 796,757.

Thus, charter public school enrollment grew by more than 23,000 students, while district public school enrollment declined by more than 50,000 students. These figures are based on an analysis done by Center for School Change staff Sheena Thao and Joanna Plotz of October 1 enrollment figures that public schools submit to the Minnesota Department of Education.

Last year, there was a record increase of more than 4,000 students attending Minnesota charter public schools. Meanwhile district enrollment K-12 declined by more than 7,500 students.

Charters enroll a much higher percentage of low income, limited English speaking and minority students than do regular district public schools. (Last year, 54% of Minnesota charter students were from low income families, compared to 31% of district students; 21% of charter students did not speak English at home, compared to 7% statewide, and 54% of Minnesota charter students were minority, compared to 23% statewide) In Minneapolis k-12 charter enrollment represented 79% low income students, compared to 64% in the district, charter enrollment was 34% English Language Learners, compared to 23% in Minneapolis (district) Public Schools, and 83% of Minneapolis charter students were students of color, compared to 70% of MPS students.

What’s to learn from the best charter public schools? Why are so many families shifting youngsters from district to charter? From surveys and interviews with parents and students, I hear four major things:

• Small size – many families really like a small school environment
• More individualized, personalized program
• Special features of a particular charter – whether it is a Montessori curriculum, project based, language immersion such as German or Chinese, arts focus, etc.
• Great respect and collaboration between families and faculty

Charter critics have made some good points. Some charter educators have not made good use of their money. We need to clarify the responsibilities of the Minnesota Department of Education and sponsors, organizations that supervise these schools.

While some charters serving low income students have done a marvelous job of improving achievement, others have not. So they, as well as district public schools, need to learn more from the best.

Many families are looking carefully at their educational options. And thanks to pioneering Minnesota laws like open enrollment, Post Secondary Options and charters, Minnesota families have more strong choices for their children’s education or their children’s education.

Joe Nathan,, directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.