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Viewpoint: Site-governed schools - an important new option for Woodbury educators and students

Do Woodbury and South Washington County educators and parents have an idea for a new, potentially more effective school? Perhaps it would be based on the Montessori approach -- or "Core Knowledge" curriculum.

Perhaps it would a school housed in a community agency, a mall or hospital (there are growing numbers of such schools, all over the country, making use of shared facilities and partnerships to help youngsters).

Perhaps the school will be organized to help solve the problem that a Minnesota group called "Education Evolving" describes as "tech-savvy students stuck in text dominated schools."

Minnesota legislators have just created a new opportunity for educators, families and students. The site-governed school legislation gives teachers, parents and community members the chance to create new schools that remain part of a district, and are covered by union contracts.

State Sen. Kathy Saltzman of Woodbury, chief author of the site-governed legislation in the Minnesota Senate calls it "an important new option that will allow teachers a chance to use their creativity and improve student achievement."

Rep. Mindy Greiling says the law gives "students the opportunity to go to schools where teachers and others are energized in thoughtful ways...(the teachers) have more flexibility to make needed changes and reforms." Greiling was pleased that teacher union leaders supported the legislation.

The legislation responds to suggestions that educators and school board members have made. They've asked for a new way to compete with the growing number of charter public schools. (Charter enrollment has tripled in Minnesota since 2001, from 10,162 to 32,776. District public school enrollment declined by about 40,000 students during this period).

Key parts of the legislation:

• A request to be a site-governed school may come from an existing district school or from a group of teachers in the district. The group developing the schools' proposal must include parents or other community members.

• School board and teachers bargaining unit must agree what flexibility the school will have to depart from the contract

• Otherwise, teachers are covered by contract provisions

• All state, local and federal funds can go to school (different from charter legislation. Charters receive virtually no funds from local referendum)

• People may determine leadership model -- traditional principal or teacher partnership

• The school may develop its own curriculum and pick the learning model

• The local board and school must develop a contract for performance

Teacher union leaders and Education Evolving developed the legislation.

Joe Graba, one of Education Evolving's founders, was a teacher in Wadena, vice president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers and Chair of the School Aids Committee in the Minnesota House.

Education Evolving's website stresses the group's priority on giving educators and community groups the chance to create "new and different models of schooling." EE also believes different schools can be far more satisfying places to work for some faculty. (More info at

Thanks to legislators like Saltzman and Greiling, teachers and their leaders, there is a potentially important new opportunity for Minnesota families.

It will be fascinating to see what happens.

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.