Rising exodus of students puts more pressure on Minnesota schools

Anthony Lonetree and MaryJo Webster:

Heaser always considered herself an advocate for St. Paul’s public schools, but the East Side mother of three faced a dilemma a few years ago when her son approached middle-school age.

Stick with a St. Paul public school, or join the tens of thousands of Minnesota students who leave their home districts every year?

Today, Heaser’s seventh-grade son attends John Glenn Middle School in Maplewood, where he has the opportunity to take advanced math and language arts classes lacking in their St. Paul neighborhood schools.

“It has been a great fit so far,” Heaser said.

Minnesota students have had the right to attend school in other districts since 1990, but the number of elementary and high school students exercising that option is surging. Last year, about 132,000 Minnesota students enrolled in schools outside their home district, four times the number making that choice in 2000, a Star Tribune analysis shows.

School choice options — open enrollment and charter schools — have proved especially popular with nonwhite or minority students, according to the Star Tribune’s analysis of the racial breakdown of students who opt out of their home district. While white students represent 60 percent of all students who open enroll, a higher share of nonwhite students make that choice.

Because state education funding follows the pupil, the student exodus from their home district to other cities and charter schools is magnifying budget pressures in districts that lose more students than they gain. It’s also transforming the racial diversity of schools across the Twin Cities.

Open enrollment means some districts, like Columbia Heights and Brooklyn Center, have become revolving doors, losing nearly as many students as they take in from other districts. It means some districts, like Minnetonka, are able to fill classroom seats that would otherwise be empty, while others like Burnsville-Eagan-Savage and Osseo now struggle to attract students who live in the district.

Locally, open enrollment has found more studnts leaving the Madison School District.