There is no questioning the success and popularity of public charter schools. In 1992, Minnesota became the first state to establish charter schools and today more than 57,000 students are enrolled in 168 schools. That represents 6.7% of the school-age population. Growth in the past 13 years has exploded to the tune of 40,000 new students.

With the popularity, charter schools are facing challenges. And with the challenges come opportunity.

In recent weeks the effect of charter school enrollment on traditional public schools has come into focus. Should there be caps on the number of authorized charter schools and enrollment? Much of the discussion has surfaced in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school systems. Both are experiencing significant enrollment declines due in part to charter schools, open enrollment to other districts and changing demographics.

We do not believe stemming the growth of charter schools through legislation is a solution to this underlying problem. Applying caps would simply mask those problems. Districts facing enrollment departures would be better served asking parents and students why they are choosing alternative schools. The reasons students are leaving may not always be academic. We also believe that student moves can be a source of greater problems leading to stratified and segregated experiences for students.

But the challenges facing charter schools are an opportunity to address other issues. Simply put, charter school visibility to the general public must be improved. There is confusion and lack of awareness and interest in the growth of charter schools. This isn’t malevolent on anyone’s part but flows from the independent nature of charters.

For traditional public schools, citizens have direct ties to their schools via oversight, public elections and, when required, voter approvals for public school issues, including operating funds and building needs.

Public charter schools are each their own district and governed by a school board — often parents and teachers — elected by the stakeholders of the charter. Charter schools have many of the same reporting requirements of traditional schools but their focused audience is smaller and more dispersed. The visibility charters now lack could benefit from a common statewide development and review calendar, and an annual meeting and report that reviews charter school development for the previous year and plans for the year ahead.

Charter school visibility would be greatly improved by the state providing the public with details involving new schools and buildings as part of a well-advertised annual statewide report. The Minnesota Department of Education should be tasked with providing consolidated information in this annual report to help the public understand the value of each charter investment. This includes the intended population to be served, the curriculum, student services, extracurricular activities and facilities.

In recent years numerous public charters have occupied new buildings. Quality space to teach students is essential for all students. The financial mechanism for funding and building a charter school is significantly different than traditional public schools that rely on voter-approved bonds to upgrade or build new schools. A charter building is constructed by a private owner and leased to the school. Lease-aid funds from the state cover the school’s cost.

This is also an opportunity to answer two important questions. What does the charter school offer that the traditional school district does not? Why won’t traditional school do likewise?

Ultimately, it is the Legislature that is the final supervising and oversight authority for charter schools. It is the necessary link between schools and the public. It rests with the Legislature to ensure visibility for the charter movement and accountability to the public that funds charter schools.

– An editorial from the Adams ECM Publishers Editorial Board. Reactions welcome – send to editorial.board@ecm-inc.com.

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