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Where have all the students gone (06/13/2012)
By Frances Edstrom

The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board is struggling with falling enrollment, some of it due to falling birth rates, and some to parents having more public school choices — charter schools. It’s interesting to note that the very thing that is troubling them — people choosing charter schools over the local public schools — began in Minnesota, under Rudy Perpich, a Democrat.

Rudy Perpich became governor of Minnesota when he was elevated to the position from Lieutenant Governor in 1976 when Governor Wendell Anderson resigned to appoint himself to take over Walter Mondale’s U.S. Senate seat. Mondale was Jimmy Carter’s Vice President. Perpich lost his bid for reelection in 1982, when he was defeated by Republican Al Quie. He was successful, however, in the next election cycle, and served as the 36th Governor of Minnesota from 1983 to 1991.

It was during his second term that Perpich championed various education initiatives, including Charter Schools and Post-Secondary Enrollment Options. He was not the governor to sign Charter Schools into law, however. That was Jesse Ventura.

The Charter School movement creation is credited to a University of Massachusetts professor, Ray Budde, in a 1974 research paper. He then wrote a book, “Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts,” which was published in 1988. The president of the American Federation of Teachers at the time, Albert Shanker, picked up on the idea, and took the concept public nationally. In reaction to the perennial problems perceived in public education, Charter Schools were embraced by political groups nationwide. The Citizens League of Minnesota championed the cause, and convinced Gov. Perpich of its value.

The Dist. 861 school board was the first in the state to approve a charter school, Bluffview Montessori, in December of 1991. The first charter school to open, however, was City Academy in St. Paul, in the fall of 1992.

Under Supt. Eric Bartelson, Dist. 861 elementaries at Ridgeway and Dakota were closed. They soon reopened as community charter schools. I well remember speaking with a member of that administration about the proliferation of charters, and he assured me that they would soon close, as “those people don’t know how to run a school.”

Charters have continued to thrive, and even grow, in the WAPS district, and it seems to be causing problems for the public schools. Historically, the public schools “captured” about 75% of the school age population. Other students enrolled in one of the many parochial schools available.

But at a meeting of the WAPS finance committee on Monday, Board Chair Greg Fellman, in addressing falling enrollment and the fact that now WAPS is only capturing 70% of the students in the district, said, “When Ridgeway and Dakota were closed and the next year we let Dakota move into our building...We gave our own students away… If you look since 2005 the percentage [of students] captured is fairly steady.”

He’s right, of course, but as former school board member Joliene Olson used to like to say, “That train has left the station.”

What the public schools need to do is reinvent themselves, and harness the energy and innovative spirit in the community that went towards creating charter schools to create better public schools. The STEM school is a step in the right direction. But the biggest problem in the public schools here, and elsewhere, as I see it, is lack of faith in the power of education. I still, forty-one years after we started the Winona Post, hear teachers and administrators say, “There are just some kids who can’t learn!” And they aren’t speaking of the profoundly affected special education students.

If the very people who deliver education to our children don’t believe that some (usually poor, nonwhite, or from troubled homes) kids can’t learn, then why bother at all. Give it all up and let charter and parochial schools take over.

Kids can learn. Public education for decades and decades has been responsible for teaching the children of immigrants, the disadvantaged, the formerly enslaved. And there are many, many success stories. Why can they not seem to do that now, in the Twenty-first Century? If public schools took on the challenge, students would return.

LWM parade was great

I’ve been practicing my parade wave for years, and I finally got to use it this week. Jen Schultz at Lake Winona Manor called and asked me to be the Grand Marshal of their parade, which they held on June 12. The residents sat along the circle at the main entrance to LWM, and the parade units went around the circle. My driver, Irene Mashak, and I, went around twice! (Thanks to her husband for the fantastic red Mustang convertible.)

There were police, K-9, deputies, firefighters, dive rescue, you name it. Lots of music (John Bernadot, of course, joined by Vivian Fusillo), the Clown Club, Ed Maus and Eric Heukeshoven in the Calliope, a red tractor, some farm animals and cute kids, Harbormaster Bill Reinarts in Dave Brommerich’s 1930 Cadillac, the Trester Trolley, the LWM “100 Club” featuring Pauline Richter (103), Alice Eitsert (100), and my mother-in-law Jo Edstrom (101 next Tuesday). And of course, LWM royalty, Queen Alvina Engler and King Eugene Kalmes.

Thanks!! Fun, fun, fun. 


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