Federal Bureaucrats ignore educators they honored

The following column appeared originally in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during April-May, 2022.
Federal bureaucrats ignore educators they honored
In a tragic, but typical action, U.S. Department of Education officials are ignoring the insights of Minnesota educators such as Susan Berg, Holly Fischer, Jon Gutierrez, Jeremy Perrin and Charvz Russell. They lead charter public schools that the DOE gave its “Blue Ribbon School” award, the highest honor it can give a school for outstanding student achievement or significant improvement. Equally disturbing, DOE also appears to be ignoring Congress. All this with proposed new regulations about who will receive federal charter school startup funds – money that has helped thousands of youngsters in rural, suburban and urban communities.

Congress’s explicit goal in providing charter startup funds is to produce more “high-quality charter schools.” So among those who should be involved are directors of DOE-designated Blue Ribbon Schools, such as Gutierrez, executive director, St. Croix Preparatory Academy in Stillwater; Fischer, interim executive director, DaVinci Academy of Arts and Science in Ham Lake; Perrin, executive director of the International Spanish Language Academy in Edina; Berg, executive director of Yinghua Academy, and Russell, executive director of Friendship Academy of the Arts, both located in Minneapolis.

Dr. Russell                                              Susan Berg                                        Jon Gutierrez

(courtesy of Dr. Russell)                       (Courtesy of Ms. Berg)                   (Photo credit Stan Waldhauser in Gustavus Today)


Each told me that they’d be glad to offer advice. But DOE hasn’t asked any of them about how federal funds can produce progress toward the congressional goal. That’s short-sighted.

Chartering — giving educators and community members the chance to create new public schools, open to anyone — has been recognized by the Minnesota Historical Society as one of the 150 most important events shaping the history of the state. More than 40 other states have adopted this idea, which originated in Minnesota. Some charters have been closed, as stipulated by state law, because some people didn’t use the opportunity well. Overall, enrollment in Minnesota charters grew from less than 100 in 1992 to more than 65,000 in the 2021-22 school year.

As the Blue Ribbon Schools program shows, there are many strong district schools, as well as strong chartered public schools. Here’s more information.

As previous columns documented, thousands of students have gained from chartering. For example:

•Melissa Sondrol has a son at Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids. She told me: “It has been a life-saver for him. … He’s one of the kids who slipped through the cracks. We’ve gone from a sullen kid who doesn’t smile much to a youngster who is excited about school and has many friends.”

•Swan River Montessori parent Amanda Glunz wrote: “I enrolled my daughter at Swan River Montessori in Monticello so she could get a hands-on education that embraces her curiosity and challenges her academically. The school staff go above and beyond and have been simply wonderful. My child has flourished in the Montessori environment and we are thankful to be part of the Swan River family.”

•Catherine Gallo told me that PACT charter in Ramsey “was able to give one of my daughters an IEP after years of fighting the public school system to get her IEP meeting. Within 30 days of starting PACT, she had a full education plan set up and services started to help her reach her full potential.” PACT’s enrollment has grown from 84 students in 1994 to more than 670 students today.

•A teen I’ll call Sam was a frustrated student at a south suburban high school. He loved music but wasn’t being allowed to take any music classes in an attempt to improve his reading skills. Sam transferred to the PIM Arts High School in Eden Prairie. His mother reported, “It transformed his life.” Sam graduated and has a well-paying job in the music industry.

•Dawn Rynders had three youngsters attend Eagle Ridge Academy in Minnetonka. She told me, “In a smaller school, kids have an ability to try more things like extracurriculars – there’s room for them. Our daughter started playing on the basketball team as a sophomore. The team wasn’t great but she learned a lot. She probably would not have been able to do this in a larger school.”

Chartering has not just been good for the youngsters who attend these schools.

It’s given educators, sometimes frustrated by districts, opportunities to create new, creative options. Chartering also encouraged some districts to expand or improve their programs. For example, as a previous 2022 column explained, the number of Minnesota districts offering research-based “language immersion” programs has grown, in part because charters offered such programs, from 30 in 2005 to more than 90 today.

Presidents of both parties have supported chartering. The federal program providing startup funds, approved in 1994, was proposed by Minnesota’s U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, a Republican, and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Democrat. Durenberger recently urged that the U.S. Department of Education call a “time out” and “not use the proposed priorities.” Instead, he recommended that DOE have a “much more inclusive” approach to developing regulations.

The liberal Washington Post and conservative Wall Street Journal have published editorials criticizing the proposed regulations. That’s in part because DOE suggests giving a priority to proposals that include collaboration with a traditional district.

Several years ago, DOE asked me to help review Federal Charter School proposals. Then, as now, there are more applications than funds available. So the priorities are critical.

Our Center has published several reports about the value of collaboration between educators and community groups.  For example, this.    Unfortunately, many districts have refused to work with charters.

Most important, the federal charter law doesn’t mandate collaboration. It’s an “end-around” of what Congress approved. Or as writer Ted Kolderie puts it, “an administrative repeal of a Congressionally-enacted program.”

DOE bureaucrats are ignoring leaders in schools they’ve honored. They are circumventing Congress. This is not the way to improve public education.- Joe Nathan

 Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org or @JoeNathan9249 on Twitter.