The Charter School Next Door: What Happens When Public Education Becomes a Marketplace?

Author:Lahm, Sarah
 
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Community activism is nothing new for Dolores Rufenacht. The St. Paul resident has lived in the same neighborhood, in the shadow of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, since 1977. Since then, she has fought her share of battles-for a playground in danger of being overrun by drug dealers; for green space the city was neglecting in nearby Como Park; and now, for a Catholic church building that is on the brink of being torn down.

Sarah Lahm is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in local and national publications, including The Progressive and In These Times.

The church in question is St. Andrew's. Built in 1927 in the Romanesque Revival style, the brown brick church boasts an impressive, multicolored terra-cotta tile roof and a handsome bell tower. From the street, it looks alive and well kept, although Mass hasn't been celebrated there since 2011.

Back then, the shrinking parish was merged with another one nearby while the building sat in limbo for two years. In 2013, the Twin Cities German Immersion School, a growing charter school in search of a permanent home, began leasing the church building and its accompanying school site by taking on $8 million in construction and real-estate debt.

Now, just six years later, the school wants to tear St. Andrews Church down and build a new school building on the same site for more than $6 million. School representatives say it would be too costly to move and that a new building would better accommodate its growing student body Rufenacht, a former parishioner at St. Andrew's, is part of a group of neighbors working to block the demolition of the church building, at least for now.

"We were happy when Twin Cities German Immersion School bought the building because they acted like they loved our church," Rufenacht recalls in an interview. But then, she says, trouble set in. "The school grew and grew and grew. They had a fast growth plan. I don't mind the growth, but they have to grow someplace else."

What is happening in St. Paul illustrates some of the larger tensions around the proliferation of charter schools, which have long been key on the agenda of antigovernment conservatives, including Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump's controversial Secretary of Education, and liberals like Senator Cory Booker, who allowed for a massive charter takeover of public schools as mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

The nation's first charter school opened in St. Paul in 1992. Since then, the charter school sector, as it is often called, has spread to forty-three more states, as well as the District of Columbia. Charter schools are funded with federal and state public education dollars but operate separately from traditional school districts.

Supporters say this gives charter schools the freedom to innovate and serve students whose needs are not met by larger school systems. Detractors say this allows public money to flow to private hands...

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