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MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:  JULY 2006 ISSUE

CHARTERING SCHOOLS IN MINNESOTA:
A NEW OPPORTUNITY FOR FAMILY FOUNDATIONS
BY John A. Cairns, Briggs and Morgan, P.A.


For foundations in Minnesota committed to improving public education, is spending money the only? best? way? Can adding new funds to a huge school district budget in any way result in meaningful, accountable improvement for students? Is an operating 501c3 making all the impact it can or should on public education? Can our social welfare, health and criminal justice systems cope effectively at all with more and more undereducated adults?

For several years, parents and teachers in Rogers, Minnesota (a rapidly growing third-tier suburb northwest of Minneapolis) had brought nearly 150 of their children to a popular, successful K-6 school. The popularity stemmed in large part from use of a "direct learning" program not otherwise available in the District. When a new superintendent decided to close the school, they were startled. When all the other buildings in the district were overcrowded and getting worse, why close the only optional program?

They explored the option of finding grant money to keep the program open. Little interest was shown, most likely for at least two reasons. First, funding capacity is tight due to market conditions; and, perhaps more critical, there is reasoned and proper skepticism that adding more money to traditional public schooling has little measurable impact on what students learn. As importantly, nearly all private funding goes to a district, not to a particular school.

There was, however, another option. In Minnesota since 2000 (and Ohio since 2003) 501c3 organizations, including Family Foundations gained authority to sponsor and create public (charter) schools. Instead of giving money, qualified entities (those having a net worth of $2MM or more) could authorize creation of a new public school. Soon the concerned organizers connected with Volunteers of America - Minnesota and made application for a charter. The school opened this September with over 200 students.

As a sponsor, a foundation oversees the academic program of the school, i.e., monitors whether or not student learning meets or exceeds pre-determined goals

A similar series of events began when parents and teachers in Minneapolis realized that an “experience” based curriculum that would likely have significant positive impact on high school students likely to drop out. They knew, too, that the needed curriculum was far different than one currently required by the district.

Efforts to seek approval to implement such an alternative program were frustrated by bureaucratic resistance, lack of flexibility arising from teacher contract provisions, and an all-too-common malaise about taking on new projects.

The organizers, being thoroughly committed to improving education for these students, took a different option. They contacted Pillsbury Neighborhood Services, an operating foundation long involved in dealing with children, young adults and families in the city. Discussions led to consensus that the new program was a promising, likely better method to reduce the drop-out rate. Pillsbury decided that approving a charter would meet their own concern that social services, health needs, and improving employability required much more effective high school education. The school opened in September 2003 with about 350 students. Many were 18-21 years old who came back to finish high school in a setting where their learning needs and support were available.