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Published in Print: July 14, 2010, as Minn. Law Spurs Some Districts to Rethink Sponsoring Charters

Minn. Law Spurs Some Districts to Rethink Sponsoring Charters

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A major overhaul to a Minnesota law aimed at strengthening accountability for those who sponsor charter schools is drawing both praise and criticism and spurring some districts to consider getting out of the business of authorizing such schools.

Among the districts contemplating leaving authorizing behind is St. Paul, where the nation’s first charter school was enacted in 1991.

The state legislature approved a slew of changes last year that increased the responsibility of authorizers for the oversight and renewal of charter schools, which are publicly funded but largely independent in their operations.

Instead of approving every charter school, the Minnesota education department will now approve each authorizer and hold it accountable for the performance of its schools.

Authorizers that wish to continue must be approved by the department by June 30, 2011.

In May, six authorizers won approval from the state in the first round of applications under the new law.

“The most fundamental change of the law is that authorizers have to demonstrate capacity to do the job,” said Eugene Piccolo, the executive director of the St. Paul-based Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, which supports the new law. “That had never been the case before. All you had to do was meet the criteria. The other component is they will be held accountable for whether they do their job or not.”

Authorizers now will be reviewed for renewal by the state every five years. The state worked with the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers in writing the new law, which has been recognized as a national model.

Cutting Ties

Keith Lester, the superintendent of the 1,700-student Brooklyn Center school district in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, said his district won’t be applying to authorize again. The work associated with overseeing a charter school, said Mr. Lester, the district’s sole central administrator, has distracted from his core responsibilities.

“It just takes too much time we don’t have here,” he said.

St. Paul’s superintendent, Valeria Silva, recommended to school board members last month that the district not reapply for authorizer status.

“We are not enemies of charter schools; it really is a capacity issue,” said Michelle J. Walker, the chief of accountability, planning, and policy for the district.

She said the superintendent was concerned that the increased responsibilities under the law could take away from the district’s core mission—especially since it would still not be able to make staffing and programmatic changes as it does in its own schools.

Scott Hannon, the director of academic affairs for the 3,700-student Winona district, said the district values the partnership with the schools, but lacks the resources to continue under the new law’s more hands-on approach.

Mr. Piccolo of the charter schools group, which helped craft the new law, said he finds districts’ decisions to leave the charter business “curious” since many had urged for more accountability for authorizers.

Not all districts are leaving the charter business, however.

The Minneapolis school system was among the authorizers approved last month by the education department. Emily Lowther, a district spokeswoman, said developing a system of charter and other autonomous schools is a key strategy for the district.

Vol. 29, Issue 36, Page 15

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