Law & Courts

Minn. Law Spurs Charter Sponsors to Think Twice

By Dakarai I. Aarons — June 18, 2010 7 min read
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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, the home of the nation’s first charter school. Minnesota is the national birthplace of the charter school movement, having enacted the first charter school law in 1991. It’s now home to 152 charter schools that enroll about 33,000 students statewide, and nearly 50 organizations—including school districts, universities, and nonprofit groups—serve as charter authorizers.

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.

Lawmakers were prompted to act in part based on a 2008 report from the state’s legislative auditor, which concluded that “charter school oversight responsibilities are not clear, leading to duplication and gaps in oversight.”

The new law shifts the balance of accountability for individual charter schools from the state to the authorizers. Instead of approving every charter school, the Minnesota education department will now approve each authorizer and hold it accountable for the academic and operational performance of its schools.

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

Six authorizers won approval from the state last month in the first round of applications under the new law.

Raising the Bar

“There’s an overall appetite for more accountability for authorizers in Minnesota,” said Bill T. Walsh, a spokesman for the state education department.

“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 won the group’s Award for Excellence in Improving Policy last year.

The increased expectations for authorizers, along with a challenging budget situation, have caused some school districts and others to think twice, said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at Macalaster College in St. Paul.

“I think what we will see are fewer, strong authorizers,” said Mr. Nathan, who helped write the original charter school law. By the same token, he added, “I think having strong, organized, knowledgeable authorizers is a very good thing for students, schools and taxpayers.”

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 been time-consuming and a distraction from his core responsibilities.

The district also receives little in financial incentive for taking on the extra burden.

“It just takes too much time we don’t have here,” he said. “All of us are trying to save money and have money we can put back in our programs.”

Even the pioneering St. Paul school district, which currently authorizes six charters, may not reapply. Officials cite fiscal and capacity concerns.

Superintendent Valeria Silva recommended to school board members this month that the district not reapply for authorizer status. The board is expected to make a decision by September.

“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 39,000-student district.

The district regularly pulls in other central-office staff members to help its charter school liaison review the schools, but the district’s interpretation of the law is that the schools would require much more time and attention, Ms. Walker said.

She said Superintendent Silva expressed concern that the increased responsibilities under the law could be a distraction from the district’s core mission—particularly since the district would still not have the ability to make staffing and programmatic changes the way it does in its own schools.

“Given that we take that oversight responsibility very seriously,” as well as shrinking resources and school district’s own improvement needs, Ms. Walker said, the superintendent considered whether the district had the capacity to serve as a charter authorizer under the new law.

Since approving the first charter school in 1992, St. Paul has broadened its school choice offerings and now offers much of what parents would find in local charters, she said.

‘Curious’ Response

Scott Hannon, the director of academic affairs for the 3,700-student Winona district near the Wisconsin border in southeast Minnesota, said Winona’s school board is leaning toward ending its authorizing relationship, but likely won’t make a decision until next year.

Mr. Hannon, who has been the district’s liaison to the four charters under its jurisdiction, said the district values the partnership with the schools, but lacks the staffing and financial resources to continue under the new law’s more hands-on approach.

“It’s easily done at this point, but the demands from the new legislation are a quantum leap forward as far as a time commitment. We are not going to add a person to do it, so you add it to a person’s job,” said Mr. Hannon, who will become the district’s interim superintendent next month.

Mr. Piccolo of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools said he finds the move by districts to leave the charter business “curious.”

“It’s been school districts that have been saying there’s not been enough accountability on the part of authorizers over the years,” he said. “As soon as the new rules are put into place, a number of them are pulling out.”

Mr. Piccolo, whose organization helped craft the new legislation, said he thinks the new law addresses long-standing deficiencies in the authorizing process.

“We knew some authorizers would get out of the business when we started pushing for the new law, partly because they were lousy authorizers,” he said. “There was one school that told me it had been in business 10 years, and the authorizer had never set foot in the building.”

But Mr. Piccolo said the members of his group have been frustrated by the state education department’s slowness in implementing the new changes and differences in opinion about how the law should be carried out.

Not all districts are leaving the charter business, however.

The Minneapolis school system was among the authorizers approved last month by the education department.

Developing a system of charter and other types of autonomous schools that serve students in some of its schools that struggle the most is a “central strategy” in the district’s overall plan, said spokeswoman Emily Lowther.

Growing Pains

For organizations now seeking reapproval, the process can yield very different results.

Elizabeth Topoluk, the executive director of Friends of Education, a Wayzata, Minn.-based group that is the authorizer of 17 charters in the state, said she wholeheartedly supports the new rules embedded in the law.

“Everyone in Minnesota who stands for charter school quality supports the 2009 changes. There were a lot of authorizers in name only and not holding schools accountable,” she said.

Ms. Topoluk said her group, which has authorized charters since 2004 and was reapproved last month, has long had an accountability process for its schools, but undergoing the new process caused it to think more about how to help its schools improve academic performance.

Richard Wolleat, the president and chief executive officer of the Duluth-based Northwood Children’s Services, said the new authorization process has been time-consuming and often confusing.

Mr. Wolleat’s organization, which authorizes six charter schools, was not approved by the state in the first round, but is hopeful it will gain approval soon.

“The philosophy has really changed to one more of regulation. That is the part of it that is philosophically and value-wise a difficult leap to make,” Mr. Wolleat said. He said his organization has not shied away in the past from tough conversations with charters that were not performing.

“The charter school community needed to put some teeth into the accountability because of the heinous and very public failure of the schools, so I understand that.” he said. “I preferred the more collegial, supportive accountability.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Minn. Law Spurs Charter Sponsors to Think Twice

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