Business Classes

THINKING OF DUCKING out to Target for a saucepan, some panty hose, and a new air filter? Add to that list an education for the kids at one of the Twin Cities' most sought-after Montessori schools. Largely unnoticed amid the debate over charter schools and vouchers, a growing number of corporations now sponsor public schools that give preferential treatment to their employees' kids. The trend may be pleasing the corporate parents who get to take advantage of it, but critics charge it's a step toward the kind of two-tiered educational system public schools are supposed to combat.

Hailed as the kind of private/public partnership that will "fix" education, satellite schools are public schools located at, or near, corporate work sites. School districts supply the teachers, curriculum, and administration. The corporation pays the rent and operating costs. In return, children of employees get first dibs at placement.

For employers, the schools provide a recruiting tool, a corporate image-booster, and a tax break. School districts like them because they're low maintenance, and they ease overcrowding in public schools. Parents save money on transportation and daycare. The first satellite schools were developed in the mid-'80s in Florida's Dade County. Miami alone now boasts 14. In the Twin Cities, Target, 3M, and First Bank all currently have satellite schools. Target's Mill City Montessori, near Target headquarters downtown, is the largest of the three, with 125 students in four grades. It's been praised for reducing both student and employee absenteeism and turnover.

Critics say Minnesota's first partnerships underscore their concerns. Public schools, by definition, should be accessible to all. But Mill City guarantees 50 percent of its 29 kindergarten spots to employees' kids. Similarly, First Bank's Downtown Kindergarten Magnate admits employees' kids automatically. The rest vie for spots in an admissions lottery. 3M's Eastside Workplace Kindergarten also gives preference to employees' kids and has the lowest number of non-employee kids--only four of its 43 students--of the satellite schools. Each has a long waiting list of children whose parents don't work for the corporate sponsors.

This bothers those who believe publicly funded programs should be open to anyone. "Employee kids may not include low-income kids, kids of color, and kids with disabilities" says Nancy Smith, education program officer for the Urban Coalition, "and certainly those are the populations in the inner city that could use the extra boost that a partnership could provide."

Mill City Principal Nancy McKinley says 39 percent of her students are minorities, and notes that Target has taken pains to include district kids. But critics contend that racial segregation is only one of the problems the satellite schools could pose. On-site schools are often close to corporate headquarters to serve the children of executives who, more often than not, are white and well-to-do. For instance, last year only 29 percent of Mill City students received free and reduced lunches, the second-lowest number in Minneapolis. By contrast, more than 76 percent of students at Park View, another district Montessori school, received subsidized meals. Plus, not all districts pay for transportation to satellite schools. Minneapolis buses kids from other districts, but students have to get their own rides to Eastside and Downtown Magnate, which makes it harder for many kids whose parents aren't employees to attend.

In addition, corporate-sponsored schools are often in better shape than public schools. Besides paying for maintenance, some companies have donated computers and paid for supplies, special events, and teacher education. Others hire extra staff and pay for after-school programs to supervise kids until their parents get off work. Ideally, however, school districts shouldn't have to depend on corporate largesse.

Even the state's most prominent educators worry about limiting access to this new breed of top-quality public school. "On balance this is a good thing," says Joe Nathan, director of the center for school change at the Humphrey Institute. "However, I would think it a better thing if the districts had insisted that they be equally accessible to all. I think that would be the better public policy."

Marianne Manilov, director of UNPLUG, a national organization for equal, community-controlled education, worries that satellite schools will open the door to further privatization in education. "I think we really need to look at this whole trend and say where are we going to be in 10 years if we sell off our schools piece by piece and say that anyone with a vested interest can financially run them. The marketplace has never taken care of children, and there's no evidence that's [ever] going to be a reality."

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