Charter schools produce billions in benefits

The following column originally was published in March, 2024 by a number of the APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers.  This includes the Sun Current, Forest Lake Times, Union Times, SunSailor,   Press& News and Monticello Times.


Charter schools produce billions in benefits


When parents or students say a school “saved their life,” I pay attention. Recently I heard this phrase often at several Minnesota charter public schools that I visited. Together these charter schools produce billions of dollars in benefits to individuals and Minnesota.

Here are a few of those stories.

Paladin Career & Technical High School is in Coon Rapids. Heidi Meade feared her son, Casey, might take his life before enrolling there. She said: “The school saved him and many others. That school is changing the world.”

Paladin graduate Casey Meade explained that in his previous district school, “I was bullied and struggled. I was a stereotypical nerd. But at Paladin, I found a much smaller school with teachers who listened to me and gave me individual attention. I earned a ‘finishing trades certificate’ before graduating and now I’m working at Lowe’s.”

Casey & Heidi Meade at his graduation (Photo courtesy of Heidi Meade)

Santo Zarate Sr. has two Paladin graduates. Santo wrote: “The way that the staff redirected my children’s behavior into the responsible adults that they are today, makes me emotional. I can’t say enough of how amazing Paladin is and how grateful we are for that school.”

Some youngsters succeed at large district public high schools. However, some students are like George Bugella, a graduate of Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids. He explained: “When I started going to school at NWPHS, I never felt belittled, small or a burden for having an IEP. The staff respected me and in turn, I respected them. In my two years there I didn’t get in trouble which was a refreshing change from ‘normal’ high school. Compared to being confined to a desk with a cutthroat schedule, NWPHS was fun.” Bugella has been a welder for 13 years.

Shawn Murphy reported that NWPHS helped her daughter Sydney “deal with her emotions. Now, Sydney is in college (with) an A and B average. She has gotten her nursing assistant certification. She could not have done (it) without the help of the NWPHS staff. … They showed her that when she put her mind to it, she can do anything, also that they believed in her even when she didn’t believe in herself.”

Here’s how I arrived at the “billion-dollar benefit” mentioned earlier.

First, a 2021 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study compared the median lifetime earning difference of a high school dropout and graduate: It’s $400,000. Here’s the study.

Second, a 2019 report by University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Russell W. Rumberger cited research that “each new high school graduate would generate more than $200,000 in government savings.” That’s because “dropouts have poorer health and higher rates of mortality than high school graduates; they are more likely to engage in criminal behavior and be incarcerated over their lifetimes.” Here’s that study.

Adding figures from those studies produces an average lifetime benefit of $600,000 per graduate. I checked with five charters, including Paladin and NWPHS, serving virtually all youngsters who have not succeeded in large traditional public schools. These five charters have more than 4,000 graduates over their years of operation. Multiplying 4,000 and $600,000 produces $2.4 billion. Many more Minnesota charters focus on previously unsuccessful students, so the benefit is even greater than that.

Some Minnesota charter public schools serve a cross-section of students, like DaVinci Academy of Arts and Science in Ham Lake, St. Croix Preparatory Middle School in Stillwater, and International Spanish Language Academy in Edina. They received the U.S. Department of Education’s “Blue Ribbon” award based on test scores and graduation rates. But schools like Paladin and NWPHS also are valuable. A complete list of Minnesota charters is here.

This isn’t a blanket endorsement of all charters. But chartering, allowing educators and families to create these new public schools that are accountable for results, has produced billions in benefits.

As Erin Gunderson explained: “Many students, like my son, don’t fit a traditional public school. It was a struggle to get him up in the morning. He’s a much happier person at Paladin. They’ve provided him with skills that he can use the rest of his life. Paladin has had a huge impact in my son’s life, but also my life.”

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., is co-director of the Center for School Change. He formerly was a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president. Reactions welcome: