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School detective: Demystifying Minnesota's school governance models

Source: TC Daily Planet
By: Alleen Brown
March 21, 2012
Once upon a time we had public schools and private schools. Now there are site-governed schools, contract alternative schools, charter schools, and the list goes on. Charter schools are public but they’re not part of a district. Site-governed schools are part of a district, but they don’t follow all the district’s rules. Private schools are an alternative to public schools, but they’re not the same as alternative schools.

Confused? Here’s a guide to help understand what these labels mean. (Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Under the umbrella of each school model, there are language immersion schools, Montessori schools, online schools and post secondary options.)

District Schools

District schools are what many of us know best, and they educate the bulk of the Twin Cities’ kids. This school year, 70 schools and programs in Minneapolis enroll 32,263* students. In St. Paul, there are 69 schools, serving 37,800* students.

District schools are governed by a publicly elected school board. The school board signs off on plans developed by district departments and a slew of subgroups organized around curriculum, finance, legal policies, etc. Policies and plans are then implemented by schools around the district.

School Choice?

According to Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College, the proliferation of school models gives lower income people opportunities to find the right educational fit. “If the government does not provide ways for low and moderate income families to choose among schools, then it will only be wealthy people that will have choices,” he said.

Districts like Minneapolis agree. Minneapolis Public Schools opened its office of New Schools in 2009. The office already manages three charter schools, and they just signed on to authorize four more, which will build on Harvest Prep’s achievement gap-closing model.

The office is also opening the state’s first site-governed school this fall, and they’re hoping to open an innovative technology-focused school in the future. MPS recently released a public request for a partner who could help them design that school. It could be a charter, could be site-governed, could be something totally different.

According to Mark Bonine, the associate superintendent in charge of contract alternatives, charters and site-governed schools, the district hopes to offer a portfolio of high quality schools that can replicate one another’s best practices.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” he said. “It’s about quality and innovation, with the goal of meeting the needs and standards for all of our students.”

As Minneapolis Public Schools associate superintendent Mark Bonine described it, the school board is in charge of governance and big ideas, the superintendent and associate superintendents are managers, and the teachers and principals implement board-approved plans.

The nitty gritty budget details will have to be saved for a future school detective story, but here are the basics. A large chunk of a district’s budget comes from a per-pupil general education allowance from the state. That value is set by legislators – this year it’s $5,174.

The state also provides categorical aids, based on enrollment of students with particular needs. Compensatory aid is one example. It’s based on the percentage of students in a school who receive free and reduced lunch. Other categorical aids include limited English proficiency revenue, special education revenue and gifted and talented revenue.

Then there’s Title I, which, kind of like compensatory aid, goes to schools with a high proportion of low-income students. Title I comes from the federal government. The feds also buy lunch for low-income students via the national school lunch program. Some of the state money listed earlier, including special education revenue, also comes from the federal government.

Finally, through local referenda, citizens can vote to raise their property tax levies in order to increase their district’s general education funds.

Rest assured that there are many, many other aids and exceptions and budget details that we could spend hours discussing, but I’ll stop before we lose ourselves in that rabbit hole. Other important facts to know about district schools - teachers are unionized and licensed, and schools must be open to all students, regardless of skill level or special need. As in all public schools, religious instruction is illegal.

*Numbers include alternative and contract alternative schools, and, in Minneapolis, district-sponsored charter schools.

District alternative schools

Alternative schools serve students that struggle in traditional district schools. Minnesota students must meet one of 12 eligibility criteria in order to attend an alternative school. They could be behind in coursework or perform poorly on standardized tests. They could be pregnant, use drugs, have a life-threatening illness or suffer mental health problems. They could be homeless or English language learners. They could be expelled from their traditional school or referred by a counselor.

Alternative schools receive much of the same funding that traditional district schools do, but there are a few distinctions. You can learn more about them here.

Minneapolis has two district alternative schools with approximately 203* students, and St. Paul has five with 666* students. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have alternative schools for ELL students and pregnant or parenting teen girls. Most alternative schools have small class sizes and offer engaging, individualized instruction, often with flexible scheduling options.

*Enrollment numbers for alternative schools fluctuate throughout the year.

Contract Alternative schools

Here’s where things get tricky. Contract alternatives are alternative schools run by non-profits. Students must meet the same eligibility requirements as they would for district alternatives.

Although the district contracts non-profits to run these schools, they’re not charter schools. The model was born in the late 1960s, when a few Minneapolis non-profits began working with kids they pulled off the streets. In many cases, they were dropouts. So the non-profits suggested contracting with Minneapolis Public Schools, so the kids could earn credit for academic work they did with the organizations.

According to associate superintendent Bonine, the model is uncommon outside of Minneapolis. Guadalupe Alternative Programs is St. Paul’s only contract alternative, with 91* students. Minneapolis has 12, enrolling approximately 1,100* students.

The non-profit hires school staff and provides the facility. The schools are governed by the non-profit’s board of directors. Teachers have to be licensed.

Contract alternatives are eligible for many of the same funds that district schools get, but they do not receive local referendum money.

*Enrollment numbers for alternative schools fluctuate throughout the year.

Charter schools

Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter school law in 1991. According to state legislation, charter schools are supposed to encourage innovation. Each school is essentially its own district. 

A contract with a state-approved authorizer gives charter schools the right to educate and holds them accountable. The contract, also known as a charter, provides performance benchmarks that the school must meet in order to have its contract renewed at the end of a specified period of time. A contract could mandate that a certain proportion of the school’s students pass the presidential fitness test or complete community service hours. Contracts often include academic achievement goals.

An authorizer can be a school district, a university or college, a non-profit organization or a non-profit set up specifically to authorize schools. This year, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers became the first union in the nation to be approved as an authorizer. Officially, they will authorize schools through a union-created organization called the Minnesota Guild of Charter Schools. They have not opened any schools yet.

Each charter school has its own school board, elected by the school’s parents and employees. Some states require that a charter board be made up of mostly teachers, but in Minnesota that’s not the case. Minnesota law does require that the board include a teacher from the school, a parent with kids in the school, and a community member who does not have a child enrolled and is not a school employee.

Charters cannot have any kind of admissions test – they have to accept any student that wants to enroll, and if they have more students than spaces, they have to turn to a lottery system.

As public schools, charters get much of the same funding that district schools get. They local referenda money, but they are eligible for building lease aid and aid for start-up costs. As this year’s budget negotiations reminded us, they don’t have the benefit of low interest rates available to government entities like districts. That means charter schools’ debt burden, extra heavy since the state delayed aid payments to schools this year, is heavier than districts.’

Other details – local districts provide transportation. Teachers have to be licensed, but they don’t have to be union organized. As of December, none in Minnesota were.

In the seven-county metro area 32,363 students are enrolled in charter schools. That includes 8,910 students in St. Paul and 10,934 in Minneapolis, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools lists 29 charter schools in St. Paul and 34 in Minneapolis.

Site governed schools

Site governed schools are the youngest school model in Minnesota. Minneapolis’s Pierre Bottineau French immersion school will be the first site governed school in the state if it opens as planned in fall 2012.

Site governed schools are district schools with extra autonomy. They get district funds, but a site governing counsel has flexibility in deciding scheduling, curriculum, budgeting and staffing. In exchange for autonomy, the school signs a performance contract with the district.

The idea for a site-governed school must come from a teacher in the proposed school’s home district, and the school’s teachers are unionized and licensed. Pierre Bottineau has a memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union to account for the unique staffing needs the school will have.

According to Bonine, many of the questions surrounding what “autonomy” looks like are still being hammered out. “Part of [the Office of New Schools’] work is defining what they don’t have autonomy around and what they do,” he said. “That continues to be a discussion with everything that comes up.”

Private schools

The vast majority of private schools in Minnesota are religious, although some like Waldorf in Minneapolis are not. That makes sense, since privatizing is the only legal way to teach religion in school. According to Jim Field, president of the Minnesota Independent School Forum, the largest proportion of private religious schools is Catholic, followed by Lutheran. There are also a number of Jewish schools in the state and a single Muslim one.

Private schools charge tuition. According to MISF, the average K-8 private school in Minnesota charges $4,749. For high schools its $8,078. Since Minnesota law requires that all children between ages 7 and 16 attend school, private schools still report to the state, and they receive some public resources. They’re eligible for Title 1 money and the lunch program, and they get a book and health supply allowance as well as money for counselors.

Although private schools are not required to participate in state testing, Field said most do use the MCAs. They have pay for them, though. Teachers don’t have to be licensed, but Field said most are. Five private schools in the metro area are unionized, including Hill Murray, Breck, Minneapolis Jewish Day School, Torah Academy and Lifeworks.

Private schools tend to be much smaller than public schools. Field said besides religion, many families choose private schools for their small, community feel.

In the 2011-2012 school year in Minneapolis, 19 private schools enrolled 5,195 students. In St. Paul, 25 schools enrolled 6,396 students.

Minnesota’s private schools aren’t doing so great. In the last three years, Field said private schools have lost 7,000 students and 38 schools closed. He blames the economy. In other states, legislators have pushed for vouchers for people who don’t have the money to send their kids to private school. But in Minnesota, in part because of the proliferation of charters and other alternative public school models, a push for vouchers hasn’t gained much momentum.


Just as there is no typical charter school or district school or private school, there is no typical homeschool. Homeschool families may have religious or philosophical convictions that aren’t addressed at bigger schools. Their child may be gifted or have special needs. In some cases, families homeschool because they had a bad experience at a public school. Some families participate in homeschool co-ops, where families share the responsibilities associated with educating their children. Some 16,081 students are homeschooled in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The state doesn’t mess with homeschools much. At one time, a local superintendent could request to meet with a homeschool family, but that’s no longer the case. Families do report annually whether or not they will continue to homeschool their child. And since in Minnesota homeschooled students have to take a standardized test every year, families have to tell the state which test they will use. They don’t have to report the test results.

Families are eligible for a few aids, including money for books, health services, counseling and special education services.

Homeschool associations like Minnesota Association of Christian Home Educators encourage families to keep detailed transcripts of their children’s work. According to executive director David Watkins, college admittance typically is not complicated by a student’s homeschool education, because college entry relies heavily on SAT and ACT scores and application essays.