These closed schools represent a handful of the 80 charter schools that have shuttered in Minnesota since the charter movement began. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal, Tim Nelson | MPR News, Tom Weber | MPR News

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Minnesota has long been a national leader in the charter school movement. Yet one in three charter schools ever to open in the state has closed, data from the Minnesota Department of Education show. More than half of the charter schools that closed did so within five years of opening.

Financial problems were cited as a reason for a majority of Minnesota’s charter school closures. Enrollment woes were the second most common problem listed.

To Eugene Piccolo, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, the closures are actually a sign of success.

“The idea of chartering is if schools don’t succeed, they close,” he said. “And in that sense, the system is working.”

Governor Arne Carlson signed the country’s first charter school law 30 years ago this month. Today, Minnesota has 165 charter schools serving some 63,000 students, more than any single school district in the state. Many of the state’s charter schools cater specifically to students of color.

Yet a wave of problems at charter schools this spring has some Democrats and teachers union leaders calling for a pause on charter school growth in Minnesota.

First, Cedar Riverside Community School, serving mostly Somali students from refugee families in Minneapolis’ Riverside Plaza, announced its impending closure at the beginning of April. Weeks later, a departing employee at Woodbury’s Math and Science Academy accused the school of racial discrimination

Then, a front-page Pioneer Press story revealed that Hmong College Prep Academy in St. Paul had lost $4.3 million in an illegal hedge fund investment.

That story prompted a Capitol press conference with Democratic legislators, city council members, and teachers union leaders demanding a charter school moratorium.

State Representative John Thompson shared a story about his son, Myz’John, now 12, who attended TRUTH Preparatory Academy. The St. Paul charter school opened its doors in 2016. Myz’John, then 7, loved the culturally relevant curriculum and having teachers from his community.

“When this school first opened, they had a parade with all the kids, and it was so much fun,” Thompson told Sahan Journal. The school took kids on field trips, including to an urban farm—especially meaningful given the country’s history of stripping farming opportunities from African Americans, Thompson said. “You don’t see that in St. Paul Public Schools or Minneapolis Public Schools. But what I do know is, if our kids can see it, they can be it.”

But when Thompson brought Myz’John back for the first day of school the next year, they found chains on the doors. The school had closed without warning.

“Teachers didn’t even know they didn’t even have a job,” Thompson said. “I vowed to never send my kid to another charter school again, ever in their life.”

State records show the school permanently closed in August 2017 due to financial and governance problems. It was one of four Minnesota charter schools to close that year.

Traditional public schools rarely close, Piccolo noted, even if they struggle for years. The charter system is designed to ensure schools are successful, he said.

“And if they’re not, we don’t just keep on doing the same thing over and over again,” he said.  Closures provide an opportunity for kids to find a better school, rather than remain stuck in a school that isn’t moving forward, he said.

Nelsie Yang, a St. Paul city council member who has consistently voted against conduit bonds for charter schools—a financing option that allows schools to receive a lower interest rate at no cost to the city—said the frequent closing of charter schools was harmful to families.

“Whenever there’s a charter school that chooses to close down, or they don’t put their money where their values are,” Yang said in an interview with Sahan Journal, “the people who lose out the most are the students and the families who attend that school, and the educators as well. They don’t get the fair share that they actually deserve.”

A national trend

National data show charter schools throughout the country closing at a disproportionate rate.

In the 2016-17 school year, 0.3 percent of all traditional public school students experienced a school closure, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show. But 1.2 percent of charter school students saw their schools close that year.

Put another way, nationally 6 percent of all public school students that year attended charter schools. But about 20 percent of those displaced by school closures did.

A study from the Network for Public Education, a public schools advocacy nonprofit, indicates that Minnesota’s charter schools appear to close at somewhat lower rates than the national average. That study indicated that a quarter of the country’s charter schools close by their fifth year, and half by their 15th year. In Minnesota, 20 percent of charter schools have closed within five years; 40 percent have closed by their 15-year mark.

Early in Minnesota’s charter movement, many schools closed within three years, Piccolo said. That’s changed somewhat since a 2009 law put stricter regulations on charter schools, creating more requirements before a school can open.

For some children, a school closure can be traumatic, Piccolo acknowledged.  

“If it’s known in advance and there’s a plan to help families find a new school, the trauma is lessened,” he said. “And we’ve had some good closures in terms of that process and we’ve had some really bad ones.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of 17 studies on the impacts of school closures show that they often hurt students academically, but not always. The quality of the next school has a significant impact on student achievement. Closures can also hurt students in ways that are harder to measure, like the loss of friendships. And students in low-income communities of color are most likely to experience a school closing.

“It has a huge impact,” Thompson said. “The kids did not deserve to lose like that.”

Two Minnesota charter schools closed at the end of the 2020-2021 school year: Minneapolis’ Cedar Riverside Community School, and Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy in McGregor, whose students were mostly Native American. At both schools, most students qualified for free or reduced price lunch.

‘The opportunities are endless’

Myz’John was initially sad when his charter school shut down, and he missed his friends, Thompson said. But he made new friends quickly, and still saw his previous classmates around the neighborhood.

Now 12, Myz’John and his older sister attend Creative Arts Secondary School, a St. Paul public school. He chose that school “because the opportunities are endless,” Thompson said. His kids can engage in dance, music, art, and video production. And the kids perform well there, Thompson said. Both are honor roll students and love to show off their report card A’s to their dad. 

The opportunities to envision different careers at Creative Arts are in some ways similar to what Thompson and Myz’John liked about TRUTH Preparatory Academy.

But there’s an important difference between their experience at TRUTH Preparatory Academy and Creative Arts Secondary School.

At Creative Arts, they know their school will still be there in the fall.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.