In 1993, an innovative group of parents and teachers received permission to create the Minnesota New Country School. Despite its early success, the school has demonstrated how even the most successful charter schools are unlikely to improve a state's educational system.
Opened in 1994, the school is located in the small town of Le Sueur (population 3,800), whose school district merged with one from the neighboring town of Henderson (population 750) in 1992 to form a new school district with a total enrollment of 1,400. An otherwise traditional rural community in the Minnesota River Valley, it is among the last places one would expect to find a progressive open school with a high-tech spin—no textbooks or classes or grades, but plenty of computers. With an emphasis on self-directed learning and a computer-infused curriculum, Minnesota New Country School is where John Dewey meets Nicholas Negroponte.
Lying outside commuting range to the Twin Cities metropolitan area, Le Sueur missed out on the rural renaissance; the district has been short on good news in recent years. Its population is aging, and the local economy took a beating during the 1980s farm crisis. Unemployment is low, but jobs tend to be with small manufacturing facilities attracted chiefly by a low-wage labor supply. In 1996, the district's eighth-grade students had among the state's lowest pass rates on the newly mandated basic skills tests in math and reading. And in February 1997, a school bond and tax levy referendum went down to defeat by a wide margin.
Minnesota's charter school law, enacted in 1991, gave a small but determined group of teachers and parents the opportunity to create a school free of the hidebound classroom practices, inadequate computer use, and general complacency that they felt hampered the local public school system. Dissatisfied with the results of the school-district merger in 1992, this group went the following year to the Le Sueur-Henderson school board with their application for a charter. Turned down the first time, they persisted and gained approval several months later.
The school operates year-round; teachers are called advisors; every student has a personal learning plan; instead of classes and grades, students work on a succession of projects at Level I (grades 7-9) or Level II (grades 10-12). The school provides one computer for every two students; the computers are networked together and connected to the Internet. Parental involvement is encouraged and expected, though school administrator John Schultz acknowledges parents should do more.
The school's philosophy and methods, while new for Le Sueur, follow in the footsteps of many progressive schools. What distinguishes the school is that it is run by a cooperative, Ed Visions, which contracts with the nonprofit school to provide educational services. As a result, teachers call themselves a professional partnership of "educational entrepreneurs."
Proponents of charter schools in Minnesota have argued that parents and students should be able to choose among schools because "one size doesn't fit all" in education. By this standard, the school is working. It offers students and parents the chance to choose an educational program very different from what they would otherwise get. Virtually all students and parents express satisfaction with what they have chosen.
But student and parent satisfaction with the school may reflect the fact that the school advises interested parents of its distinctive educational program and its unsuitability for some students. Thus while state law requires charter schools to enroll any eligible student who submits a timely application (or, if there are too many applications, to accept students by lot) and forbids charter schools from limiting admissions based on intellectual or athletic ability, the school's counseling process ensures that many of the students transferring to the New Country School from the public school system were—though unhappy with their previous schools—not failing academically.
Moreover, charter schools are supposed to be a catalyst for structural reform of public education as a whole, promoting competition among schools and thereby establishing financial incentives for all schools to become more responsive to students and parents. The Minnesota New Country School has failed by this standard because its existence has not catalyzed change in any of the local school districts. Indeed, some teachers at Le Sueur High School claim that it has thwarted change there by draining the regular high school of energetic, independent-minded parents and students who might otherwise stay and demand improvement.
While the school has a waiting list and many of its students travel 20 or 30 miles each way to attend, the school's appeal remains too narrow and limited to have a broader impact in the area. Fewer than one-quarter of the school's students—about 5 percent of the district's total enrollment in grades 7-12—live in the Le Sueur-Henderson district. District Superintendent Harold Larson confirms that the charter school has not sparked any district-wide changes. A recent state-commissioned evaluation of Minnesota charter schools concludes that while charters can serve as an important stimulus for change, they may not ensure systemic improvement in the public schools.
Sustaining these schools is very hard work. Oscar Wilde joked that socialism would never work because it would take up too many evenings; if Minnesota New Country School is any guide, charter schools may run into a similar hazard. Since they are organized as a cooperative, teachers must contend with the demands of school site management, participatory governance, financial planning, and the design and application of new educational methods and systems of accountability—all of this and teaching, too. As one teacher at the school observed: "It's a real question. Can a school like this survive and be successful only with a heroic level of energy, dedication, and even self-sacrifice?"
The school has enjoyed more advantages in its early years than most charter schools. Its founders included several experienced teachers and former members of the local school board. Its proximity to three small college towns helped attract interested parents and students. School finances were bolstered by highly successful grant writers who were aided by close connections to several prominent national school reform advocates who have promoted the school as a showcase for the charter movement. Given the limited pool of available grant money, most charter schools cannot expect to duplicate such fundraising success.
Minnesota New Country School may survive and even thrive. But it is unlikely to beat the odds that charter schools face in fundamentally reforming public education.