MN Gov/Ed Commissioner urge learning from most effective district & charter public schools

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius are proposing a wise, and historic change in Minnesota public education.  They are recognizing reality: Minnesota has outstanding district and charter public schools.  We need to honor and learn from them.  So they have made a proposal to do that.

In his State of the State address to both houses of the Minnesota Legislature, Gov. Mark Dayton said education would retain a high priority.

In a recent conversation with several of us from ECM newspapers, Governor Dayton gave credit to Commissioner Cassellius:  “This was her idea.  I like it.  Where there is innovation and success, we need to shine a bright light.”

The Commissioner explained, “this is a formal expression that we can and should spread good ideas to help close the achievement gap.”  So she and the Governor have proposed spending $4.8 – $7 million dollars a year for the next several years to identify the district and charter public schools that are producing the largest gains in student achievement.  Part of this money would help these schools continue their work.  Part would help share their best ideas with other schools.

This is an extremely wise way to spend some of Minnesota’s public education dollars.

Over the years, I’ve described how Cincinnati Public Schools, with help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and our Center, increased overall high school graduation rates by more than 25 points, and eliminated the graduation gap between white and African American students. One of the key strategies was identify and implement ideas from outstanding district and charter schools around the country that were helping youngsters.

The proposed “Governor’s Award for Excellence”, helps Minnesota beyond a heated, but ultimately not helpful debate.  People argue about which is better, district or charter.

This is a little like debating whether leased or rented cars have better gas mileage.  It’s not a meaningful question.  District and charter public schools vary widely.  We have examples of Chinese, German, French and Spanish immersion schools, both district and charter.  There are project based, or Montessori, or Core Knowledge district and charter public schools.  Results vary widely.

So what makes the most sense is to identify schools, whether district or charter, that are making the most progress with students.

Twenty years ago Minnesota became the first state to allow parents, educators and community groups t create what became known as “charter” public schools.  These are public schools, open to all, that must be nonsectarian.  They have a contract specifying what they must do to stay open after their initial three – year contract runs out.  That’s where the word “charter” comes from.

Promoted by both Democratic and Republican presidents, the charter idea has taken off.  We’ve gone from one Minnesota charter, serving less than 100 students in 1992 to more than 5,000 charters in 40 states serving, according to the Center for Education Reform, more than 1.5 million students.  Some of them are having great success.

We also have some terrific district public schools.

The Governor and Commissioner wisely recognize that there are outstanding charters and district public schools.  I checked with two national groups that know of no other state leaders who have proposed this kind of identification and sharing.

It’s a darn good idea. I hope legislators approve it.