Nick Coleman: Monkey For The Establishment

In my years of fisking Nick Coleman, it’s easy to pick his worst work.  It’s his hackery immediately after the 35W bridge collapse.

But if I could say anything for the guy over the years, it was this; he may have been a hack who was in bed with the local establishment, but at least he was his own hack.

Nowadays?  Ew.

His latest “column” at the Strib lacks the one thing that distinguished Coleman; he’s apparently turned to slathering his own brand of incoherent, un-fact-checked, prejudicial, and almost-always wrong bilge onto other peoples’ press releases.

Coleman attacks charter schools.  Or, should we say, his masters at his current gig would seem to have told him to attack charter schools.  We may never know.

But that’s what he’s doing – and as usual with a Nick Coleman column, he’s full of it.

Back-to-school supplies are on sale and the annual report on schools that are not making adequate progress is due out any day (expect another rise in falling performance), so this is a good time to look at the performance of Minnesota’s charter school movement, which was going to lead us all into a bright 21st century for better, smarter public education.

Oops. Not doing so great there, either.

Charter schools give parents a choice – and in the city, it’s a choice we’re taking by the thousands.

Which is, after all, the only reason private-school graduate Coleman cares.

Improving learning outcomes for students of color? Nope.

Well, actually, yep.

Outperforming traditional public schools on achievement tests? Nope.

Actually, when you compare apples and apples, yes.  Remember – charter schools…:

  1. …don’t have an Alternative Learning Center system to get all the “problem” kids off the books
  2. …have disproportionately high numbers of poor kids, non-native english speakers, and the kids that the traditional school system is failing in droves. Which is why we’re leaving the public system in droves.
  3. …actually give parents who don’t have the money to go to a private or suburban public school  – or who live on one the Indian reservations, where the public schools are an even bigger disgrace than the urban public systems – a choice. And some hope.

But other than that…?

It would be easy to argue that the charter school movement has fallen flat, and I have said as much before.

And we all know how reliable Coleman’s predictions have been.

But the charter school crusade has grown too large and expensive to dismiss.

Which is just absurd.  Charter schools cost less per student than the public schools.

Coleman is, of course, reading note-for-note for the MN2020 report on charter schools – which a slew of charter school supporters pretty roundly debunked two months ago.  In other words, he’s using out of date and inaccurate information in pursuit of an agenda. That’s bad enough.

Next he swerves into just making things up:

It is eating into severely limited funding for education and has blurred the lines between church and state (and not just at one Muslim school, but among many charters loosely basing their educational approaches on religious values whose adherents think they should get public tax dollars to inculcate them).

Coleman is referring to Bill Cooper’s “Friends of Education” schools, which borrow many aspects of Catholic education without actually teaching Catholicism.  Their results are, by the way, uniformly excellent; each and every one of the Friends of Education schools outperforms any public school district in the state (go here and look up schools run by “Friends of Education”).

In the meantime, they’ve been in operation for years.  If there had been any violations of the Establishment Clause at any of them, in a state full of intrepid gumshoe reporters teachers union monkeys like Nick Coleman, I suspect we’d have heard about it.


But Coleman surely probably knows that. Why would he attack Friends of Education with nothing but a scabrous innuendo?

Personal history, perhaps?

More than that, charter schools have created a huge tax-supported playpen where entrepreneurial start-up schools have been loosely supervised and unscrutinized by education officials who are accountable to the approval or rejection of taxpayers.

Leave aside Coleman’s clumsy shot at being a D-list Studs Terkel knockoff.  Leave aside the blatant misinformation (charter schools are supervised by the same body that supervises public schools).  Let me just ask Coleman, my fellow Saint Paul taxpayer; what “accountability” do you think the Saint Paul district has to you and I?   And if you say “the school board”, then you are obviously more comfortable with untrammeled, partisan, one-party systems than I am.

Minnesota was the first state to allow charter schools (in 1991), which were designed to overcome the limitations of an education system that had become a sacred cow. Today, you can’t find a holier cow than the charter school movement. Any questions can get you branded as a stooge for unionized teachers, big gummint and mandatory euthanasia for free thinkers. Guilty, guilty, hmmm … maybe!

If only there were a website where I could just link to instant descriptions of some of Nick Coleman’s lazier flights of rhetorical fancy.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Minnesota’s charter schools (almost 150 of them now, with 28,000 students) are as much a part of our educational problem as they were supposed to be a solution. Many charters have been beset by management problems, undertrained staffs and a lack of adequate financial controls. The furor over TiZA, the troubled Muslim charter school in Inver Grove Heights, is only one example of a much broader mess: Too many charter schools do not get adequate oversight, especially from one system that works — elected school boards that answer to voters.

And here, Coleman assumes that you either are completely unaware of reality, or is trying to make sure you stay that way.

What are the graduation rates at the Minneapolis and Saint Paul public school systems?  Less than half.  How about for minority students?  Less than that. What do they cost?  Vastly more than the state averages per student, and getting worse, and they’re both still constantly on the brink of financial catastrophe and begging voters to pass supplemental levies (which charter schools never, ever get).

And who controls those systems?  DFL and Teachers-Union-dominated elected school boards.  The elected school boards have utterly failed, and still fail to provide any faint shred of accountability, much less rectifying the disaster in any way.

After nearly two decades of “experimenting,” charter schools need to be held to stricter financial controls, educational performance standards and public accountability. It is also past time to put a cap on the number of charter schools, and the present 150 is more than enough. The urgent need now is not for more charter schools, but better ones. And that requires shutting down the bad ones.

Excelent, Mr. Coleman.

Can we hold public schools to the same standard?

More than 80 percent of charter schools were found to have serious financial or management problems during 2007, according to a review of state records done by the liberal think tank Minnesota 2020. That group’s executive director, John Van Hecke, finds it ironic that charter schools, built on a promise to make education more responsive, have avoided the scrutiny traditional public schools must face.

Quoting John Van Hecke?

Oh, please.  Go ahead.  Make my day.

“When they were launched, the battle cry was, ‘We’ll be better than traditional public schools,'” he said. “Now it’s, ‘Don’t hold us to the same standards as traditional schools.’ But the public clearly is demanding more and more accountability over how its money is spent. And the answer is more and more oversight, from the Education Department and the Legislature.”

No, Nick and John.  The public is asking for more charter schools – and, more to the point, more school choice.  1/8 of Saint Paul parents have left the SPPS; even more have left the Minneapolis system.  They’ve decamped for suburban districts using the state’s open enrollment system, to private and parochial schools, and for charter schools.

So  look for MN2020 and Nick Coleman to propose repealing open enrollment any time here.

One might surmise, by this point, that Coleman knows nothing about the subject that he’s not told by others – that he’s reading off of MN2020 talking points. That Mr. “I Know Stuff” might be just vamping it, like a marionette being twirled about by a giggly master; like a monkey.

And you’d be right:

In addition to millions spent on per-pupil aid for charter schools, up to $1,200 per pupil is spent in state assistance to help buy or rent charter school space (this at a time when public enrollment is shrinking and surplus education buildings stand vacant). These “lease aid” payments will balloon by 23 percent this biennium, to a whopping $85 million, and much of that total is going into a muddled mess where payments continue even after buildings are paid for and tax-paid real estate winds up owned not by the public but by the charter schools themselves.


The property is “owned by the charter schools themselves?”


Because charter schools are not allowed to own property.

They can not own their buildings.

Wow.  I guess he doens’t “know stuff” after all.

Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. He can be reached at

I’d love to see the crap their “junior fellows” put out.

UPDATE:  I’ve been corrected – charters can own buildings, they just can’t buy ’em with public funds.  Which was what Coleman was talking about, so it doesn’t impact my point in any way.

14 thoughts on “Nick Coleman: Monkey For The Establishment

  1. Nicely done. I believe you’ve established what Non-Monkey® is, now it’s just a matter of determining the pricing structure.

  2. Complaints about the cost of school building leases for charter schools are easily resolved. Simply lease them the empty space in the public school buildings their students USED to attend, but were clamoring to escape. Everybody wins, right?

  3. J.E. – But the K-12 establishment doesn’t want to lease space to “their competition.” As I heard a Board member say last night, it’s “not a level playing field” and that District needs to bring its kids “back home.” Further, these Charters “push and push and push” and suddenly the K-8 is now a K-12. Net consensus: we’ll take such leases and divestitures on a case by case basis, which is to say, never.

  4. I wonder if “civic engagement” includes the time he sniffily declined to speak at my friend/colleague’s mass communications class years ago.

  5. Actually, charters can own a building but they cannot have purchased it with public funds. It will be interesting when a building owned by a charter school “Building company” has been fully paid for. Since such building copmanies are closely held, they are audited as part of the charter school audit. The state, therefore, knows the exact cost structure of the building company and adjusts its Lease Aid accordingly. If the monthly debt obligations of the building company are reduced (as in good economic times) the state Department of Education recovers part of their Lease Aid during a subsequent year. They cannot do that when the landlord is a completely independent entity.

    I suspect that once a building owned by a charter school building company has been paid for, Lease Aid will be considerably reduced – probably to what could be expected for maintenance.

    We at Bluffview haven’t encountered that problem yet and wont until long after I have retired.

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