Free to choose a Walmart school

Poverty Academies, Segregation Academies and a foundation plan to destroy the Minneapolis public school district

Rob Levine
April 23, 2017

“School choice” is all the rage in Minnesota these days. The kind of school choice most in vogue are charter schools, where, according to promoters, less affluent parents can experience the same kind of education “marketplace” that rich people enjoy with their private schools.

Ok – that's an argument. But just what kind of choices are there for, say, low-income parents of color in the core Twin Cities? Today, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, there are 174 operating charter schools in the state. There are 73 closed charter schools in the state, making a total of 247 ever opened. By comparison, there are over 2,500 regular public schools.

Yet in both Minneapolis and St. Paul charter schools have secured a major foothold. In Minneapolis there are now 34 operating charter schools that enroll almost 12,000 students. In St. Paul there are now 37 operating charter schools enrolling more than 13,000 students. By comparison Minneapolis enrolls about 36,000 students, and St. Paul about 35,000. While it's obviously true that students who enroll in a charter school in one city don't necessarily hail from there, the numbers are a good benchmark.

The Walton Family Foundation has started 46% of all open charter schools in Minneapolis

And charter advocates are hard at work enlarging that total, in Minneapolis, at least. The charter advocacy and startup organization Charter School Partners (CSP - now Minnesota Comeback), is in the middle of a five year plan to open 20 new charter schools in the Twin Cities. An archived page from CSP's disappearing website is titled "New Schools for Minneapolis." Last year Comeback announced that it had secured $30 million in commitments from philanthropies, which it plans to use to create “... 30,000 new rigorous and relevant seats – particularly for students of color and low-income students” by 2025 in Minneapolis. Though it has existed for barely a year Comeback has already collected $1.4 million in grants from the Minneapolis,Joyce and WEM (Whitney MacMillan) foundations.

Whatever “rigorous and relevant” means, 30,000 new “seats” in a district that has a student population of about 36,000 students is essentially a plan to kill that public school district. As Alejandra Matos wrote in the Star Tribune a year ago, some Minneapolis education officials "...suspect Minnesota Comeback is out to undermine the traditional public school system by replacing it with a vast network of charter schools, like in New Orleans or Washington, D.C."

How might that happen? In 2013 Moody's Investors Services issued a report warning that charter schools could drain enough money from regular school districts to in effect create a mini death spiral. It warned that in response to lost revenue districts might “...cut academic and other programs, reducing service levels and thereby driving students to seek educational alternatives, including charter schools...” It's worth remembering that in 2016 the Minneapolis school district experienced an unexpected $20 million shortfall.

Given that Minneapolis might someday be entirely a “choice” district – what kinds of choices do students of today and tomorrow face? Charter advocates over the years have provided high-sounding notions of teacher and parent created schools, teacher-led schools, and have promised unprecedented educational innovation, achievement, and “accountability.” But it's difficult to start a school – it takes money and expertise, as the “edupreneurs” of those closed schools can attest.

The charter school movement, however, is awash in money, and it has developed a pipeline for funneling that cash into new charter schools. One foundation – the Walton Family Foundation – heirs to the Walmart fortune, has started or helped to start 70 Minnesota charter schools, or 28% of all charter schools ever opened in the state. Of those 70 startups only 46 are still operating, representing 26% of all charters operating in the state.

Thus has Minnesota essentially created and privatized a new sector: The School Startup business. Democratically elected local school boards used to be the gatekeepers for the creation of new schools and the direction of public tax dollars. No more. Today that function is more and more taken up by private organizations like Charter School Partners that channel large startup grants from one foundation. In essence, school startup decisions in Minnesota are increasingly left to Sam Walton's heirs.

Some of those startup schools received relatively small grants – in the $10,000 range – in the years before they opened. But for the most part the WFF goes in big. It has contributed more than $220,000 each to 46 charter schools in Minnesota in either the years before they opened or the year they opened. Four more charter schools were started by other funders.

More impressive is that the funders in edhivemn's database have contributed to 133 of the 247 charters ever started in the state – 54%. They have contributed to 104 of 174 currently open charters schools – 57%. They have given more than $80,000 to 88 different schools, and given more than $200,000 to 66 schools. All in all the foundations have spent over $37 million in direct grants to charter schools, $16.7 million from the WFF alone.

It wouldn't be illogical to think grants of that size are not significant to charter schools, but that's not the case. Startup is everything. Once the schools are operating they are eligible to receive all kinds of public money, from per-pupil state allocations to lease aid to per-capita payments to the school's Authorizer – the organization responsible for the school. And once they get going it usually takes a series of big screw-ups to get closed, partially because there is a financial incentive to everyone involved to keep schools open.

The foundations have a particular fixation with creating and supporting schools, many of them severely segregated, in poor areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul that are also areas of racially concentrated poverty. These schools are, in the words of Myron Orfield from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, the new “Poverty Academies.” Because many of these schools are racially homogeneous they could just as easily be called “Segregation Academies,” conjuring a dark echo of the days in the US South after Brown vs. Board of Education.

The foundations have collectively given money to 88% of all open charter schools in Minneapolis

By 2016 there were 93 “hypersegregated” schools in the Twin Cities – schools that are more than 95% children of color. Almost two-thirds of those schools are charters. Children of color in the state who attend charter schools are twice as likely as their regular public school counterparts to attend a highly segregated school. In St. Paul there is actually a girls-only charter school - which would seem to be a violation of state law.

Minneapolis is home to 34 operating charter schools enrolling 11,800 students. Thirty of them enrolling 10,900 students are supported by the philanthropies. Only four charter schools operating in Minneapolis enrolling 870 students have not received funds from the philanthropies. Of the 34 open charter schools in Minneapolis the Walton Family Foundation alone has given an average of $219,000 to 21 of them – 62% of all open charters in the city. If you throw in all the funders they have collectively given money to 30 open Minneapolis charter schools – 88% of all open charter schools in the city – for a combined total of $19.6 million.

Twenty three Minneapolis charters have gotten significant funding from the philanthropies. When placed on a map those 23 schools form an archipelago across an area consisting of concentrated racial poverty and concentrated poverty. The foundations helped start 15 of those schools, and have contributed large sums to others.

Eleven of those 15 schools have high concentrations of Blacks / African Americans, ranging from a Black student population of 72 % to a high of 100 %. Eight of those schools, serving 2,600 students have a Black student population over 85%.

Three schools concentrate Hispanic / Latino students. The flagship Hispanic schools are Hiawatha Academies, stars of the charter school movement. Altogether Hiawatha enrolled 1,050 students in 2016, 89% of them Hispanic / Latino. Nearby El Colegio enrolls 99 students, 98% of them Hispanic / Latino. Further north Venture Academy is more integrated at 49% Hispanic /Latino of its 185 students.

There are two funded Native American charter schools that together enrolled 101 students in 2016. Center School, included in the data as a charter school, isn't really one. It is an independent district school, but operates like a charter, and receives its own grants from the philanthropies. It has received over $1 million from the philanthropies, and enrolled 40 students in 2016, 72% of them Native American. The other is Bdote Learning Center, which enrolled 61 students in 2016, 57% of them Native Americans, and received $295,000 from the philanthropies between 2013 and 2015.

The charter school situation in St. Paul is much the same with one interesting twist. In one area of St. Paul there are a string of highly-segregated schools within one two mile radius. A few short blocks from the intersection of Como and Snelling Avenues sits Hmong College Prep (HCP), a K-12 charter school that enrolled 1,383 students in 2016, 99% of them Asian. The school, which opened in 2004, was supported in its startup years by the Walton Family Foundation which gave it $360,000 between 2002 and 2004, including a $10,000 planning grant in 2002.

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About 1,000 feet to the southwest of HCP, across Snelling Avenue, sits another charter school, Dugsi Academy. Dugsi is a K-8 school that enrolled 316 students in 2016, 99% of them Black / African American. Dugsi stands out as a school with very low test scores – it had an average proficiency in 2016 of 4.9%. While its hard to say that the foundations contributed much to Dugsi – although there is a curious $10,000 grant to the school in 2002 – three years before it opened – it is nevertheless a single-race charter school in a diverse area.

Less than a mile east of these two highly segregated charter schools comprised of students of color, away from the industrial gestalt of Como and Snelling Avenues, sits the Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS). Tucked into a former church situated on a leafy parcel ensconced between Como Regional Park and Lake Como, TCGIS serves grades K-12, and enrolled 471 students in 2016, 88% of them White. German Immersion received $190,000 from the Walton Family Foundation in 2004 and 2005, the year it opened, and in 2016 had very high test scores – an average proficiency of 85.6%.

Then there's the Community School of Excellence (CSE), less than two miles east of Hmong College Prep, near the corner of Maryland and Rice streets. CSE is a K-8 charter that enrolled 989 students in 2016, 99% of them Asian, approximately 90% Hmong. These two charter schools, less than two miles apart, both with 99% Asian students, combined enrolled more than 2,300 students in 2016.

Another single-race school, Higher Ground Academy, which is 100% Black / African American is less than two miles straight south of Hmong College Prep. Higher Ground, a K-12 charter that opened in 1999, enrolled 762 students in 2016. The school, received more than $200,000 from the Walton Family Foundation in its early years, between 2000 and 2003.

Yet another highly-segregated school – this one Hispanic /Latino – lies four miles east of Community School of Excellence. Academia Cesar Chavez (ACC) enrolled 392 students in 2016, 90% of them Hispanic / Latino. ACC is a favorite of the education philanthropies, receiving $775,000 since 2002.

The overall charter picture in St. Paul is similar to that in Minneapolis. The city had 37 operating charter schools in 2016; 25 of them have received $6.3 million total from the foundations. Supported schools enroll 9,805 students – 75% of all charter students in St. Paul. The Walton Family Foundation has started or helped to start 13 of the 37 operating charters schools in the city, giving them a total of $3.6 million. In all WFF helped start 17 charters in St. Paul, with three of them now closed.

“Outcome-based schools”

IN THE BEGINNING charter schools were called “Outcome-based schools” - they were supposed to be both innovative experiments and to produce high-achieving (test scores) results. In her book Zero Chance of Passage Ember Reichgott Junge, the author of the country's first charter school law, was adamant that children would not become guinea pigs in a grand educational experiment. But in any true experiment there will be many tries and many failures; that's how the scientific method works, and that's how the charter experiment has played out in Minnesota, where over 25 years 73 different charter schools have been closed. Today the concept of churn, the constant opening and closing of charter schools, is a given property of our system.

At first charter advocates disavowed their high profile failures, but have recently come to embrace them as necessary for progress. At the beginning there was disagreement about whether charter schools should have to follow desegregation rules, but today advocates make the unusual argument that it's not segregation if parents are choosing segregated schools. Of course there would be no charter schools if the government didn't fund them, so government itself must be complicit.

The core lesson of this arrangement, as articulated by Lamar Alexander, President George H.W. Bush's Education Secretary, was to trade regulation for higher achievement. This deal was later expanded to allow segregated schools in exchange for that same high achievement. Today the foundations' plan seems to be to create as many segregated schools in areas of poverty as possible, which can be seen in Minnesota Comeback's strategy to create 30,000 new “seats” in Minneapolis, focusing “...particularly for students of color and low-income students...”

The third leg of the charter advocates' promises, that of “accountability,” is a slipperier beast. Due to a number of factors there are no true objective measures of student achievement. Test scores were originally seen as a proxy, but as charter school test scores have increasingly failed to meet expectations advocates have downplayed their importance.

To be clear, relying on test scores to judge students, teachers and schools was always a questionable idea. For one thing, students are only tested in three subject areas in Minnesota. And those scores can be manipulated in many ways, including schools selecting their students, counseling out others, administering practice tests, aligning curriculum to the tests, and teaching to the tests.

Yet the alleged low test scores of public school students was the wedge used to carve out a space for charter schools, which promised better results, so it's more than a little ironic that advocates now say they don't matter. Given the reformers reliance on test scores to both create charter schools and to bash regular public schools it seems fair that critics should at least get to consider those same scores in evaluations of the charter school experiment.

Of the 55 charter schools operating in Minneapolis and St. Paul supported by the foundations, exactly four exceed the state average of 58.1 proficiency for math, reading and science. Unsurprisingly all four of those schools' largest demographic groups are White students. Three of those schools have a White population of over 75%; one, Yinghua Academy, has a barely White majority.

Some foundation-started charter schools have very low proficiency rates, some even approaching zero, including:

Charter school # students Avg proficiency rate
Bdote Learning Center 61 0
Lincoln International School 144 2.9
Minnesota Internship Center Charter School 363 3.6
Dugsi Academy 314 4.9
El Colegio 99 5.8
High School for Recording Arts 315 8.7
LoveWorks Academy For Arts 192 9.1
Sojourner Truth Academy 396 11.1
Learning for Leadership 249 13.3

Some of these schools, like El Colegio, have had test score proficiency rates near zero for years yet never seem to be in danger of being closed.

More interesting are the exemplar charter schools – the flagships supported by the foundations with big bucks and even bigger publicity. Among these “high performing” charter schools are the Harvest Network of schools on the western edge of downtown Minneapolis. The newest school in the Harvest group is a K-8 charter called Mastery School, a semi-collaboration with the Minneapolis school district that is 96% Black and enrolled 239 students in 2016.

Mastery has received almost $1 million from the foundations since 2011. The school's startup was financed with $330,000 from the General Mills Foundation in 2011 and 2012. In 2016 Mastery had a reading proficiency rate of just 14.4%; the statewide average proficiency for reading is 59.9%. Over the three years for which the Minnesota Department of Education has data test scores at Mastery have been steadily falling:

Best Academy, another Harvest Network school, is 98% Black with 721 students. It has received more than $1.6 million from the philanthropies since 2010. Best had an average proficiency rate of 31.4% in 2016. Harvest's flagship school – Harvest Preparatory School – has received more than $3 million from the philanthropies since 2001. Harvest Prep does a little better, but hardly laudatory, on test scores with a 36% proficiency rate.

Charter advocates' other “high performing” example schools are the Hiawatha Academies in south Minneapolis. Since 2006 Hiawatha has received $3.6 million from the philanthropies. Hiawatha enrolled 1,050 students in 2016, 89% of them Hispanic / Latino. Hiawatha scored an average proficiency rate of 46% in 2016 – still a full 12% lower than the state average.

The philanthropies do support some charters that actually score well on standardized tests, but the only ones that score higher than state averages are majority White. Some of their “Poverty” or “Segregation” academies do better (some do worse) than state averages for their demographic segment, but relatively few even approach state test averages. For an experiment that promised higher achievement and a lessening of the so-called “achievement gap” that is some weak tea.

In truth one can't entirely blame charter schools for their poor academic performance. Just because they have claimed to have found a way to increase student achievement via a fake market controlled by the Walmart heirs doesn't change the basic facts of primary and secondary education. As one wonk put it, show me a student's family income and socio-economic status and I'll show you her test scores.

But don't try telling that to Minnesota Comeback. On their website they claim

We know that access to high-quality schools, not a child’s background or ability, is the most important factor in student achievement

Uh, no, we don't know that. The most important factor for student achievement are her family's economic and social circumstances. Research suggests, reports the Rand Corporation, that "...compared with teachers, individual and family characteristics may have four to eight times the impact on student achievement."

And those "rigorous and relevant seats" Comeback is promising? Last year the organization made one of its first investments - $170,000 to LoveWorks Academy - a 90% Black school in north Minneapolis that has had test score proficiencies below 15% for the past five years. The grant was for a new "instructional model."

Comeback would have been better advised to just give the school money to hire more teachers. But charter advocates steadfastly ignore the one proven method of increasing academic achievement: lower class sizes. There are troves of evidence supporting the efficacy of smaller classes, but, and this is key, it would cost more money, and would require the hiring of more, presumably unionized, teachers.

And those are two bridges too far for a movement motivated by the destruction of public schools and their teacher unions. So charter schools will continue into the foreseeable future with their educational experiments on students, primarily those who are poor and of color. And the state of democracy in Minnesota will continue to slowly erode as power is quietly passed from local, elected school boards to self-appointed plutocrats.







Teach for America $ 10,220,450
Great MN Schools $ 9,560,000
Minnesota Comeback $ 9,114,019
Hiawatha Academies $ 8,821,958
KIPP Minnesota $ 5,416,544
Charter School Partners $ 4,871,464
MinnCAN $ 4,155,592
Educators 4 Excellence, Inc. $ 3,342,313
Policy Innovators in Education Network Inc. (PIE Network) $ 3,192,289
Harvest Preparatory Charter School $ 3,099,438
Ed Allies $ 2,696,000
Our Turn, Inc., nee Students for Education Reform (SFER) $ 2,352,750
Charlemagne Institute - nee Intellectual Takeout $ 1,967,000
Harvest Network of Schools $ 1,524,539
Education Evolving $ 1,171,500
The New Teacher Project $ 486,206
Total: $ 71,992,062



Rob Levine
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Though specifics vary, across the nation charter schools are draining the students and finances of public school districts, creating distress in many. In Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Foundation is trying this very strategy with its created entity, Minnesota Comeback, whose goal is 30,000 new charter seats in the city.

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Rob Levine
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Ember Reichgott Junge's book provides a clear view into the history of charter schools in Minnesota, just not the one she intended

This is a big year for charter school aficionados in Minnesota, as 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of the the nation’s first charter school in St. Paul. The legislation that authorized charter schools, enacted a year earlier, though limited in scope, promised a thorough consideration of the experimental education model, which has since sprouted up in 43 states and the District of Columbia.

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