Following the high-profile flameout last fall of a newly launched charter school, Minnesota education officials have announced policy changes aimed at sharpening the oversight skills of those charged with sponsoring and governing the independently operated public schools.
Key elements of the policy will be new training requirements, not only for the educators who actually run schools but also for their boards of directors and the entities that grant those boards their contracts to operate. In a move that charter observers say may be a national first, the state education department will make such training a condition of receiving money from the federal program that provides start-up grants for charter schools.
“It is possible that Minnesota is breaking ground here,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the associate assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement, which runs the charter school grant program.
State Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren announced the changes on Dec. 29, in response to the sudden failure of a charter school in St. Paul. The department shuttered the Colonel Young Military Academy on Oct. 31, less than two months after it had opened, amid plummeting enrollment and financial problems.
State officials attributed the failure to a breakdown in the supervision provided by the school’s board and the Minneapolis community center that chartered it.
The academy was the 18th charter school to close in the state, according to state officials. A few of those failures have yielded charges of serious mismanagement. Two weeks before the academy closed, for example, a couple that ran a St. Paul charter school closed in 2000 were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars to their personal use.
“The charter school movement is suffering with some of these closures and bad publicity,” said Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the Minnesota education department.
He said that Ms. Seagren, who strongly supported charter schools as a Republican state legislator before being named to her current post last summer, believes that the rules changes will help prevent such failures. While the rules had been in the works before the academy’s shutdown, Mr. Walsh added, the commissioner speeded up their implementation in part “to assure the public that charter schools are still a good option for their kids and an important part of the public school system.”
Eye on Accountability
Bucking a national slowdown in the growth rate of new charter schools, Minnesota has seen a steady climb since the nation’s first charter school opened in St. Paul in 1992. A total of 105 schools are up and running, and 33 more have been approved to open either next fall or in 2006.
Compared with many other states, Minnesota has an unusually broad array of charter school authorizers. Twenty higher education institutions and 14 nonprofit organizations have granted charters, in addition to 29 school districts and the state education department itself.
While the state has offered voluntary one-day orientation programs for charter school board members and sponsors in the past, state officials say that requiring multiday training will underscore that supervising a school is a serious commitment. Unless board members and sponsors attend the new programs before their schools open, state officials say they will withhold the $150,000 in federal start-up money that new schools can receive for each of three years.
Sponsors also will get a checklist for judging whether schools are ready to open. Staff members from the state education department and an outside sponsors’ assistance network will help authorizers determine several months before new schools’ opening dates whether they need more time.
In another move aimed at bolstering authorizer quality, the education department plans to renew an attempt to pass legislation that would allow for the formation of nonprofit organizations that are focused exclusively on sponsoring charter schools.
In addition, the department plans to conduct midyear reviews of all charter schools’ enrollments in a bid to head off financial crises that have arisen at some schools because of dramatic swings in their numbers of students.
Some critics of charter schools in Minnesota, though, are not satisfied with the new measures.
House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, a Democrat, was quoted in local newspapers as calling them “baby steps” that fall short of the improvements needed in charter school oversight.
But charter supporters in Minnesota and beyond are praising the policy changes, both because of their substance and the collaborative approach the state took to devise them.
“The superintendent kind of turned to the charter community and said, ‘Let’s see if we can improve the quality of the charter schools together,’ ” said Nelson Smith, the president of the Charter School Leadership Council, a national group based in Washington, “and that’s a really constructive response.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Minn. Adopts Mandate to Improve Charter School Oversight