Last spring, officials at the Minnesota Department of Education announced they were closing the state’s first virtual high school, Blue Sky Online. The school, they insisted, had engaged in persistent, serious violations of state law, graduated students who did not complete required course work and failed to offer curricula that meet department standards.
The school’s administrators did something few charters have done: Instead of closing quietly like most charters that somehow ended up in MDE’s crosshairs, they demanded a day in court. In September, following months of back and forth and shutdown-imposed delays, they got it.
On Tuesday, an administrative law judge with the state Office of Administrative Hearings delivered 48 pages of what must seem like vindication: The state failed to establish, “by a preponderance of the evidence,” that Blue Sky has a history of major or repeated violations.
MDE officials were not immediately available for comment.
The judge’s opinion is not binding. The department may still elect to sever the school’s relationship with its charter authorizer, Novation Education Opportunities. If it does, however, it can expect the school’s administrators to appeal to a higher court.
In June, MinnPost ran a two-part story about the controversy in which Your Humble Blogger confessed that, having read, reread and then read again a redacted version of the state’s case against the school and a heap of counterarguments supplied by Blue Sky, I could not determine, in lay English, what the alleged violations were and whether the school could refute them.
In the process of trying to sort through the claims and counter-claims, I ran across a couple of obscure cases in which earlier charter schools claimed to have had similar experiences with the department, which is not an investigative agency and which, in all fairness, got handed a contradictory, ill-defined bundle of mandates when charter schools came into existence.
We’ll have a fuller analysis next week of the implications of the opinion both for Blue Sky and for the future of Minnesota’s efforts to hold charters accountable on numerous levels. For now, I offer one observation:
During the last legislative session some of the department’s DFL allies sponsored legislation aimed at boosting MDE’s power in situations like the one with Blue Sky. If there had been no shutdown, and the law had not been stripped from the eventual compromise bill, the school might not have gotten its hearing.
There’s a civics lesson in there somewhere.