Tag Archives: charter schools

Sell Central

27 Mar

I didn’t leave many secrets about my opinion when the idea of a Duluth Edison charter high school first emerged a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve only studied under one of the state’s greatest critics of charter schools, Myron Orfield. While I don’t buy all that Orfield sells uncritically, his data only reinforces many of the points I tried to make at the time. As I said, I didn’t think there was any credible way to spin a new, large charter high school as anything positive for the existing school district. I still fear that the most likely result of a new Edison High will be a Denfeld even further drained of students, with dire implications for public education in western and central Duluth. The odds will be stacked against it, and its troubles would be troubles for the entire west side.

Now, however, the Edison has made a public offer for the Duluth Central site. The school board will meet Monday to hear community input, and may consider waiving its policy restricting the sale of buildings to other K-12 educators. The offer, a cool $14.2 million, is significantly more than the offer from a private developer that fell through last year. Central has long been an albatross for the district, which has struggled to sell a very large, somewhat difficult to access property with a giant school building on it. ISD 709 must pay to maintain the old building and the surrounding property, and revenues that were supposed to help pay off the Red Plan have never materialized.

The policy against selling buildings to potential competition makes sense. In any other line of business, it would appear crazy to dump off a facility like this. But as the charter-public “competition” dynamic shows all too well, education does not operate like a normal market. The “competition” is here, and now the question is whether ISD 709 can make some profit off its arrival. $14 million won’t plug up all the holes, but it will help pay down some debt and insulate the district from truly damaging cuts.

This all goes to show that there is only one logical and moral choice for ISD 709: sell it. Sell it now. The Edison high school is a fait accompli. Its leadership is committed, and the Duluth Central alumni base, not without reason, will note that this fills a hole in the center of the city. (Don Ness had quite the Facebook manifesto on the subject.) There will not be a better deal, or a better use of that site, in the foreseeable future. While Duluth is doing relatively well right now, it has not become a magical boomtown, and with a fair amount of apartment development under way, I’m not sure there’s a market for a giant new development atop the hill. Given the tepid interest to date, and the much lower single (known) bid by someone other than Edison, to go along with all the access-related and demolition challenges at the site, the signs aren’t encouraging. Using that old high school for its original purpose also serves the community in other ways, as it saves wetlands and spares traffic congestion around the corner of Rice Lake and Arrowhead, where Edison planned to construct a school from scratch.

The only reasonable counterargument claims that selling the building starts the clock on the high school’s opening sooner, which will only hasten the loss of funding that comes with a loss in students. Still, the price tag here appears good enough to recoup those losses, particularly if ISD 709 can negotiate an enrollment cap. And while I think the Edison people need to be more aware of the potential unintended damage of their new project, this need for mutual understanding goes both ways: the district, too, must respect Edison’s presence in local educational debates and engage the charter. For everything that divides them, they do have a common goal.

For too long in Duluth education circles, infighting, territorialism, and pettiness have kept the city from that goal. It’s time to start anew.

Duluth News Roundup: March 2015

15 Mar

Over the past couple months, this blog has neglected any mention of Duluth affairs unrelated to the exploits of one particular hockey team. Time to fix that. I just spent a weekend back home, and Duluth is basking in sunny repose in mid-March, a rare feat that had everyone out enjoying the brownness of it all. (Why do these nice springs only happen when I’m elsewhere?) So, let’s see what’s been in the headlines over the past couple weeks, shall we?

Surprise! Art Johnston Is Suing ISD 709

Okay, maybe nothing much has changed. I saw this coming from a thousand miles away back when the School Board launched its shortsighted inquest into its most stubborn member, and everything has, depressingly, played out according to plan.

I go back and forth on what I think will happen if this does play its way through the courts. Harry Welty, who is the only person providing any insight beyond the most basic talking points, thinks Art has a very strong case in that his freedom of speech has been violated. That said, it’s not hard to see Harry’s biases here, and as the tone of his blog has shown recently, he can’t be trusted to be objective when he has an obvious stake in the outcome. From my very limited perspective, I’m not sure the Johnston camp has a good counterargument to the most salient point against him—that he used his influence as a school board member gave him undue power and a conflict of interest in representing his partner, Ms. Jane Bushey, in discussions with district administration. (Johnston supporters are quick to point out that no police report was ever filed against Johnston’s alleged “assault” of Supt. Gronseth, and I agree that it sounds like a fishy and trumped-up charge, but the “bullying” of Ms. Bushey is just as unsubstantiated at this point.)

I’ll agree with Art and Harry that the state’s law allowing school boards to remove members seems way too loose. I’d support the effort to change that, and bring it in line with the standards used for other elected bodies. But unless his lawyers can prove unconstitutionality, a fight that would involve some very high-level courts, the School Board was within its right to exercise its power of removal so long as it found “proper cause.” The Rice Report as written gave them proper cause, and while Art and Harry have questioned Atty. Rice’s character, they’re going to have a hell of a time proving that. This leaves them with the possibility of questioning some of the testimony she relied on to develop that proper cause. Harry enjoys making dark allusions to the actions of one school administrator, but this would tip the case into a number of accusations in the shadows and he-said, she-saids. Is that really a winning case, especially when the other side actually gets to tell its story? I’m not very convinced. And frankly, if the accused party needs character witnesses, she’ll have some good ones. I could be one of them.

I still think it was dumb of the School Board to go down this road against a mostly powerless Member, as Art will only drag this out in the courts forever and make it an even greater PR nightmare. I don’t know why any sentient voter would support any of the seven incumbents based on their conduct at the moment. But I also don’t think this debacle will prove the vindication that the anti-Red Plan camp seems to hope it will become, either. The whole affair is a pox on everyone’s house.

I should’ve gone into education law. Seems like an awfully lucrative field.

Howie Backs Out

As you might guess, I am crushed, simply crushed, to learn that Howie Hanson has withdrawn from the mayoral race.

It’s actually a pretty shrewd move on Howie’s part, and one that lets him get out of the race with dignity before it gets too heated. His odds were low, and this was not the stage for him. This allows him to dedicate himself to his seat on the City Council. Not having watched much lately I don’t know if he’s getting better or if it’s Same Old Howie, but he means well, cares for his residents, and, as one voice among nine, cannot do too much damage.

This leaves Emily Larson alone in the race at the moment, though we still have eight months before the election. Names like Yvonne Prettner-Solon and Chris Dahlberg continue to drift about, but they’ll need to decide fairly soon if they want to have the resources necessary to mount a successful campaign. In the end, Larson may be the biggest winner from Howie’s very early entry into the race, as her quick answer allowed her to really get ahead of the pack and get her name out there. I still think this election is hers to lose.

Let’s Sell Some Weed…Or Not.

There was some controversy this past week over the creation of marijuana dispensaries in Duluth; the Planning Commission is going full speed ahead here. The City Council, on the other hand, hasn’t been such a big fan in the past. There were a number of proposed sites—near the airpark, Garfield Avenue, Lincoln Park, somewhere in or around Morgan Park. Not coincidentally, these are all on the west side. For the sake of the west side’s image, I hope it ends up in the airpark or on Garfield Avenue.

The defenders of these sites say they’re all heavy-industrial areas anyway, which is true to an extent, but complexities of land use tend not to come into people’s minds when house-shopping. Saying “there is a pot dispensary in Lincoln Park” is probably enough. Granted, that might not be a turn-off for some people…but, let’s be real. Any rehabilitation of Duluth’s west side isn’t going to be led by a rush of people chasing a marijuana dispensary (unless Duluth goes all rogue and tries to become the Boulder of the North, but I don’t think that’s on the table right now). It’s going to need stable families to set down roots and repopulate the schools. Stick it by the airport or on Garfield.

Chartering a School

I’ve talked about this some before, too, but it’s coming to fruition: Duluth’s Edison charter schools are building a high school on the Snowflake Nordic Center site.

My objection isn’t to educational alternatives (which I support in principle, from private and parochial schools to homeschooling), nor necessarily to the idea of charter schools (though there is growing evidence that, in time, they tend to just become destinations for white flight). It’s to the scale of the project. In a metropolitan area the size of Duluth, subtracting 600 students from local high schools is going to cause a fundamental disruption. Of course, the school will draw from numerous districts; ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims most Edison students nowadays go to Marshall, and now seems unconcerned, but I have a sneaking suspicion over who will be the real loser in this new setup: you guessed it, the school that draws from the area of Duluth right by the new school. Denfeld. The poor get poorer.

Time will tell, of course. But the supporters of the Edison project are, in my mind, far too blithe and/or naïve over the likely effects of their new high school. This area is too small, and we are all interconnected. You do not live in a vacuum.

St. Louis River Corridor

Lest this post get too down on the west side, here’s cause for some potential excitement: we have some nice plans for the St. Louis River corridor redevelopment, most of them involving trails. In fact, if there’s a criticism, it’s pretty much all trails; the question becomes one of how to integrate all of these trails with the existing built environment, and how to capitalize on the new attractions. Still, there’s lots of encouraging stuff here, from skiing to rock climbing to horses to river access. There is plenty of ongoing investment in west side amenities. The question is, will genuine economic opportunity follow? Or is this just a cosmetic repair on the surface, one that ignores a collapsed economic base and a declining housing stock? I don’t have the answer there. Time will tell.

For all my grumbling, it was good to be back. Nothing quite matches a Minnesotan’s delight as the coming of spring after the long, cold tunnel of winter. Enjoy your spring, Duluth. I hope to be back again before long.

A Follow-Up on a Charter High School in Duluth

18 Oct

My piece on the possibility of a Duluth Edison charter high school was unusually punchy for this blog, and in turn, it provoked some good reactions. I spend a lot of time in detached analysis; part of this is just who I am, and part of this is because I do try to transcend normal political categories so that I’m not pigeonholed as some tradition-loving conservative or government-loving commie. But when the guard does come down (and when it does, it always seems to involve Duluth East High School), taking a hard stand on something often does generate a good response. So here are some of the responses, and please, if you have any thoughts, send them along in a comment or through other means. I love the dialogue.

First, I want to clear something up that I didn’t mean to suggest, especially with my overly vague title: I certainly wasn’t trying to throw all charter schools in one big pot. In large urban areas, I can certainly see how charter schools can be and have already been helpful, though I also don’t pretend to understand the education debate in those cities well enough to come to a good conclusion. For my friends out there in Teach for America who are employed in charter schools, keep doing what you’re doing. I just hope you can see the nuance in this debate, which I think reveals the dangers of abstraction in education. Whenever someone says a certain type of school—public, private, charter, whatever—is the problem or the solution, you should be suspicious. This is a complicated debate, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and little reason to believe that what works in New York is the same thing that works in Memphis or Muncie or a small town in Kansas.

My intent was to address Duluth, Minnesota in 2013, and nothing else. Perspective is in order, and an understanding of the diversity of experiences is in order. That’s what set me off about the original “Dish with Trish” piece (since removed from the Reader website, I now see) more than anything: her own perspective was the only one that mattered, and she declared that ISD 709 “sucked” for her, and therefore must suck for everyone else, even though this is (a) patently untrue and (b) is of absolutely no constructive use for figuring out the future of education in Duluth.

With that in mind, I got three good responses from people with unique insights into the situation here.

My first correspondent was a fellow Duluth East alumnus who went to Edison schools through 8th grade. He had a very fair beef with my insinuation that Edison would hurt diversity (broadly defined) in Duluth schools. I did know that Edison has a fairly high percentage of students on free/reduced lunch, but at such a small school, I wasn’t sure that this was necessarily a good proxy for diverse family backgrounds: after all, there are plenty of engaged and well-educated parents who just don’t make a lot of money. (Maybe they’re single-income families, maybe they’ve chosen fulfilling jobs that don’t pay much, maybe they were English majors, etc. I’m a living example here: I got a Pell Grant, but my parents both have advanced degrees, and it would be laughable to call my childhood “working class” or something along those lines.) My correspondent, however, assured me that the kids at Edison during his days there ran the gamut of possible backgrounds; most went on to Duluth Central, he said, and he could name plenty of former classmates who went on to become teenage parents or even went to prison.

My friend had plenty good things to say about Edison, and thought the school did pretty well for what it had to work with. He didn’t particularly want to be at Edison and was happy to head to East for high school, though as a hockey player, he already had friends at East who helped make his transition easy. He said he wouldn’t send his own kids there unless there was a substantial gulf between it and the public schools, and didn’t appear to think the schools are at that point right now. He also agreed that an Edison High was not in the best interests of Duluth as a whole.

He also raised a good point that seems to have been forgotten in all of this: Duluth already has a charter high school! Harbor City has been up and running for a while now. I guess my question to the Edison people is, what would an Edison High offer that Harbor City doesn’t? Is there simply not enough room at Harbor City, or is there something deeper at work here?

It’s also worth noting the time he was at Edison: the early 00s, long before the Red Plan debates began. When I mentioned that, he said he did think there has, perhaps, been a change in Edison’s mission in recent years, whether the people who are running the school realize it or not. On a similar note, Harry Welty noted that the situation currently confronting Duluth schools was “unimaginable” when Edison was first set up. My friend’s comments invite a lot of questions over the Edison mission, and I’m genuinely curious to know the answers. The school may have been diverse in 2003, but how have things changed since the Red Plan flights began, and how will it look in 2023? Perhaps Edison may not want to think of itself as being in direct competition with ISD 709, but in a city of this size, it’s inevitable. How does Edison choose which applicants get in, and does it just shrug its shoulders at the kids who don’t end up there? If more families try to “flee” the “issues” in ISD 709, who gets let in? Considering that one of these two districts gets public funding without needing to endure levies or contentious school board meetings or Keith Dixon or Art Johnston, how does the endgame possibly look good for ISD 709? I can imagine a few answers to that question, but I want to hear them from other people, too.

While it obviously isn’t Edison’s fault that ISD 709 has some issues, it does share a community with that District, and it has some responsibility to work with the District, not against it. I think school choice is great when it meets needs that public schools do not, and I’m glad people are happy at the K-8 Edison schools. (See an older post of mine on publics versus privates here.) Edison can be great for this city if it is a complement; the troubles will begin if it comes to be seen as a substitute. As I said at the end of the last post, we’re all in this together.

Harry Welty followed up on the Dish with Trish on his blog, and adds some kind words about me on the end. His perspective on white flight into charter schools is an interesting addition to the conversation, and it will be interesting to see if Edison—which is fairly racially diverse (by Duluth standards) right now—remains that way. And while the racial element is important, I also think Duluth’s racial homogeneity can hide other divisions within the community.

Finally, I heard from someone who has more knowledge of the financial details of a possible sale of the old Duluth Central to Edison than I do. Here are my informant’s thoughts, with this person’s permission:

[T]he idea that Edison will get a high school may be an inevitability, but who is to say that they will get off the ground in the near future?  As far as I can tell, there is no building around here suitable for a high school outside of the property that our district owns. It would take Edison at least 4 years, maybe up to 6, to build a building from the ground up. They need to find land, purchase it, develop plans, get bids, get permits, etc, etc, etc. We currently send 1.4 million of public school funding to Edison every year. In the event they purchase Central, it’s conceivable that they could be off and running by September 2015. If they have to do it on their own, it’s likely they won’t have a school till at least 2018, maybe 2019. Assuming they have around the same number of students, that’s an additional 1.4 million for 4 years that would be sent to Edison that otherwise would have stayed in our schools. That 12 million we get from them for Central won’t look nearly as good if you have to subtract 5.6 million of lost revenue over that span of time when they otherwise wouldn’t have had a high school. 

Of course, that isn’t going to satisfy the people who are upset that they’re being taxed to maintain Central and just want that off the books as soon as possible, but if these people take the long view, selling for minimal profit now will only exacerbate financial problems later on, and we’ll be having a war just like this one a few years down the line. From the District’s financial standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to wait for another buyer; the question is, how quickly do they think that buyer can come along, and how much longer will this process drag on?

It’s hard for the District to win here, but this city has to come up with a coherent vision for the future of its public schools. Sorry, Marcia Stromgren: public education isn’t going away anytime soon, and even with an Edison High, the public schools will be inextricably bound up in the city’s fate. We can fund them with the levies, vote for dedicated candidates who will dialogue with us citizens, and watch the Board to make sure the money ends up in the right places. Or we can vote them down and somehow pretend that 50 kids in a classroom is “justice,” or that this will teach a school board full of people who were not around when the Red Plan was implemented a lesson about having implemented the Red Plan. It’s your choice, Duluth.

Charter Schools and the Ones Left Behind

12 Oct

My dad and I are in southern Wisconsin this weekend, visiting my grandmother for her 87th birthday. The impromptu family reunion has been a rewarding one, as I’ve been reunited with a cousin I hadn’t seen in about 15 years. My dad was the only one of my grandmother’s children to go to college, and without belaboring the details, let’s just say I grew up in an entirely different world from my cousin. It wasn’t the smoothest of meetings, especially since neither of us is all that extroverted, but we shared some laughs and found some common ground. I’m damn proud of that, and I wish I’d found a way to say more.

What on earth does this have to do with education? It’s simple. It made me wonder about her education, and even more importantly, about her 13-year-old son, whom she had while she was still in high school. I’ve never met the kid; he lives in Colorado, and my cousin doesn’t have custody over him. But I care about him. Who’s looking out for kids like him?

On the drive down, I found myself reading a Duluth Reader Weekly column under the tagline “Dish with Trish” advocating the selling of Duluth Central to the Edison charter school system for a new high school. Her experience in Duluth public schools was the polar opposite of mine, and she refuses to acknowledge them as a contributor to her education. She rushed her children out of ISD 709 and into Edison. Her argument is a sloppy one that relies on silly cherry-picked examples about kids holding open doors for her; it lacks anything resembling nuance. But that doesn’t take away from the sincerity of her perceptions. She clearly thinks Edison offers a better future for her kids, and for her, that is all that matters.

The argument in favor of charter schools is a pretty sound one. “Charter schools create competition, and competition is good.” That makes complete sense. Institutions that never face any competition can easily become stagnant or mediocre. But here’s the thing: charter school populations are entirely self-selected. Everyone there is there because they want to be there. No wonder people gush about the community and engaged families at charter schools: describing them that way is practically tautological. If you are an engaged parent, it also makes complete sense that you’d want your child in an environment entirely surrounded by other children of such parents. Add in the ugly class sizes in ISD 709, and it’s a slam dunk. What’s not to like?

However, this nation has made a commitment to universal public education. Unless you want to go and throw that out, you’re going to have to contend with the fact that there are quite a few people out there for whom education is not a priority. Perhaps their parents are unwilling or unable to support kids to the extent they need; perhaps it’s a conscious rejection, and most likely it’s a complex web of socioeconomic and family and psychological factors. It’s unfortunate in many ways, but that fact can’t be wished away. These kids are still going to go to school, and it’s going to fall upon the public schools to educate them. Because of that, public school test scores will always face some burdens, teachers will always be frustrated by certain kids, and while these kids are certainly not doomed to be disruptive or “bad,” they have an unfortunate tendency to become the face of public schools. Public schools will never be able to compete with charter schools on a level playing field. Ever.

If you pull the engaged families and students out of the public schools, it leaves the public schools in a downward spiral that’s hard to escape. If parents never think their kids are going to public schools, they don’t bother to support school levies, and the funding dries up. Parent volunteers disappear, and booster clubs that give private support to public school programs go the way of the dodo. Class sizes get even bigger, even more kids are pulled out, forcing even more cuts, leaving behind those kids who are all too often left behind by society. I’m not saying this is destiny; there are some exceptional individuals who come out of even the worst schools, and committed leadership can turn around struggling schools. But this is the exception, not the norm. Throwing up one’s hands and praying some good leaders will come along isn’t a winning strategy.

You would think that most liberal-leaning people respect the need to support the entire community, and to fight for public schools. (I won’t pretend to know Trish’s political allegiances, but aside from a few stray anarchists, social libertarians, and Harry Welty, I don’t think the Reader has ever run anything by anyone who isn’t somewhere on the leftward end of the political spectrum.) Duluth’s liberalism isn’t without its downsides (as with any political ideology), but it has allowed for relatively generous support for public institutions over the years. And yet, with our public schools going through a troubled time, the reaction of so many community-oriented people has not been to fight for that community, but to flee in search of something else.

I don’t say this in spite or judgment. It’s only human nature to care deeply about our children before anyone else, and I’m not among the cosmopolitan idealists who think we can or should get rid of that. When I try to weigh the moral implications of something, I often use my hypothetical future children as my test: would I let my children go here or do that? I certainly wouldn’t send them to one of the miserable inner-city schools I saw in Washington DC just to make a political point. (For new readers, I went to college in DC before coming home to the city I love most.) Duluth, however, isn’t there yet. Some perspective is in order: Duluth can still be rescued, if enough people pitch in and resist the atomizing tendencies that drive us all to pursue our own short-term personal interests at the expense of the communal good.

The problem with Duluth is that it’s small. Build a charter school and take 500 kids out of the Washington DC school district, and DCPS will keep on running (to the extent that it runs…) with fairly stable funding; there might be some ripple effects, but it isn’t going to reorder the entire situation. Take 500 kids out of a district that only has maybe 2800 high school students, and you have a potentially huge disruption. Duluth is small enough that the old cliché used by everyone from Marxists to Buddhists to Rand Paul (in very different contexts)—“we are all interconnected”—really is true. Charter school parents may not like to hear this, but in Duluth, it’s true: your choices affect everyone else. The good news is that, in a smaller community, a movement to change the course doesn’t take a whole lot of people. We can make this happen.

In a community of this size, it’s impossible to imagine a sustainable social fabric without public schools. To their credit, Duluth public schools have programs for the kids who aren’t on the fast track on college that teach them skills that will get them employed after their school days are over. I don’t know how well these programs work, but at least the effort is there, and that is essential. Students who aren’t going to college need to know that they aren’t failures, and that there is a group of people who care about their futures. By keeping everyone in the same building, we recognize that interconnectedness, even if they’re tracked into very different sorts of classes. Tracking can make sure that the highest achievers can get the courses they need to go to the best colleges (it worked for me), and the kids in the middle can find a happy medium, too. Money and support flows in to everyone, and not just the select few who already have strong support networks. If you get enough stakeholders on hand to fight the good fight, the class sizes will fall to normal levels, and these schools can reach their very real potential.

You might call that an idealistic stance, but it’s an ideal rooted in acceptance of reality. The people in public schools are going to be our neighbors. Some of them might even be our relatives. If you’re a liberal, the need here should be obvious, Red Plan rancor be damned: there is no other way forward if you really do support an equitable society. If you’re a conservative, giving these kids a chance can keep them off the welfare rolls, and creates at least an avenue to welcome their families into a community that will allow them to escape the pathologies of the past. Of course it won’t work out for everyone. Human nature is what it is, and people will make mistakes or not listen or face obstacles that simply cannot be overcome. But it is not destiny. And public education, for all its faults, is, from a societal standpoint, the only cost-effective way to keep it from being destiny.

Yes, this requires some active parenting. It requires a bit more engagement, perhaps, as people band together to fight for their kids and confront the bloated bureaucracy and inane love-and-happy-thinking education-speak that plague many school systems. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it for everyone that you share this community with, and for your own kids, too. Putting one’s children in a school that offers the whole gamut of students also broadens their horizons in ways that no self-selected charter school ever could. There is more to “diversity” than race or faith, after all. This is the world we live in. The empathy I feel for people from different backgrounds from mine does not come from the various service projects I’ve done among people from disadvantaged communities. It comes from living among them.

All of that said, I support the sale of the old Central High School to Edison. I can wish that all of the Edison parents are going to read my piece and change their minds, but I’m not delusional. Edison High is going to happen. I don’t like it one bit, but holding up some ideal in a desperate attempt to keep one’s hands off the inevitable is only going to hurt the district in the long run. Selling Central to Edison gives ISD 709 some chance to control the terms of the sale and cap enrollment, and I doubt it’s going to get a better offer for that financial black hole atop the hill. At the very least, Harry Welty’s lease idea could offer some sort of compromise. (Full disclosure: Harry and I did lunch after he read my last column on ISD 709.)

Antagonizing the charter school people even more certainly isn’t going to win them back, either. This is our future we’re talking about. We’re all in this together, even if we have some disagreements about methods. I hope Duluthians can come together and work some of these things out, perhaps over a drink or three. (I’d be happy to foot the bill, even on my underemployed recent college grad’s salary.) This town is unique because it has such a distinct communal identity; with enough effort, it has the potential to be exceptional. Getting there is going to require that people get out of their comfort zones, though. We’ll see if Duluth can pull it off.