Katherine Kersten took up her duties as the new metro columnist of the Minneapolis Star Tribune this past May. I knew Kathy’s column would be great; her biweekly opinion column for the paper’s editorial page raised the average daily quality of the editorial page by a factor of two over the eight-year period she wrote for the editorial page. Kathy’s metro column also displays the reportorial and analytical gifts she brought to her opinion column. I think she is rapidly becoming one of the best news columnists in the country.
Don’t miss her column on school choice today: “Private schools do more for variety of kids.” Kathy writes:
Recently, the National Education Association — the nation’s largest teachers union — called on parents to boycott Wal-Mart, in part to protest the “anti-public education activities” of founder Sam Walton’s son, John Walton.
Walton’s “anti-public education” sin? He co-founded the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which gives tuition dollars to low-income children whose parents believe they would do better in private schools.
The Children’s Scholarship Fund has a presence in the Twin Cities. Each year since 1999, it has partnered with Kids First, a local nonprofit, to help 600 to 1,000 children attend the school of their choice (www.kidsfirstmn.org). The mission, says Kids First director Margie Lauer, is to provide “a choice for parents, a chance for children.”
Last week, I decided to test the conventional wisdom and visit Kids First families who clearly don’t qualify as educational “cream.” How are they faring outside government schools?
I stopped first at Mary Collins’ home on Selby Avenue in St. Paul. Collins’ sons, Lamar, 11, and Donte, 9, attend St. Peter Claver School in St. Paul on Kids First scholarships.
Seeing Lamar and Donte, bright-eyed and beaming, you’d never guess that they — like Collins’ seven other adopted children — were born with drugs in their systems. They were crack babies, found cowering under a bed after a crack house raid eight years ago.
“All my children came to me with severe medical problems,” says Collins, who subsists on government adoption subsidies. Some of the older children attended St. Paul public schools. “But they seemed lost there,” she says. “Classes weren’t structured enough.”
The younger boys found exactly what they need at St. Peter Claver. “The academics are rigorous, the classroom environment is disciplined and harmonious, and teachers tell me just what to do about my boys’ special learning needs,” Collins says.
How could this be? St. Peter Claver, whose students are nearly 100 percent minority and low-income, has far fewer resources than St. Paul public schools. It spends about $5,000 annually per pupil, while St. Paul schools with similar demographics generally spend around $11,000. And the Collins boys are precisely the kind of “special needs” kids who are supposed to soak up resources.
Kathy provides additional evidence in support of the answer she offers in the rest of this important column.