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Charter-school kudos — and a wish list

A national organization Tuesday named Minnesota’s charter school law the best in the nation [PDF]. It’s the fourth time the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has conducted the survey and the second time Minnesota has come out on top.

The state earned high marks [PDF] for allowing multiple authorizing agencies, for transparency in charter application and renewal processes, for allowing schools to operate independently and for access to operating funds. The laws are among 20 policies the group has identified as factors that support the creation of more high-performing schools, particularly those serving the neediest students.

Instead of spending the day celebrating, however, local charter school advocates are polishing the agate type on proposed legislation they say would further strengthen the state’s charter policies. First up is a bill that would mandate the closing of charters that persistently perform in the bottom 15 percent of schools and would create a new license for some out-of-state teachers.

Al Fan
Al Fan

“While we are pleased Minnesota’s charter law ranks No. 1, we must do a better job of utilizing the charter model to create great schools for all Minnesota kids,” said Al Fan, executive director of Minneapolis’ Charter School Partners (CSP), which has advocated for many of the provisions. “With our strong law, charter schools can lead the way in creating a new generation of high-performing schools to help close one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps.”

(Full disclosure: CSP employs Katie Barrett Kramer, who is the daughter-in-law of MinnPost’s Joel and Laurie Kramer. I have never met Barrett Kramer nor heard Joel talk about her work or CSP’s. Fan contacted me independently a couple of years ago to talk about their work. I learned of the Kramer connection via the group’s website some time later.)

Director of the Center for School Change (CSC) and a drafter of the original charter law, Joe Nathan welcomed the NAPCS report. Minnesota’s charter laws have sparked the creation of numerous innovative, effective educational models, he noted, and most recently enabled mainline school districts and gap-closing charters to share winning strategies.

Measure to reserve low-income spots

Among the reforms he’d like to see come out of the 2013 Legislature is a measure that would allow schools to reserve a certain number of spots for students from low-income families. Charters now admit students via lotteries — a requirement that was initially put in place to ensure fairness. Because sibling preference is allowed, some of the most popular schools have unintentionally come to serve concentrations of middle- and upper-income families.

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

Minnesota’s 1991 charter law, the nation’s first, contained some inherent tension. In the hope that the schools would be nimble and innovative, charters were given tremendous freedom. At the same time, irregular oversight enabled a number of financial scandals and allowed the weakest programs to underperform year after year.

In 2008, state auditors released a report [PDF] blaming the instability that plagued some of the schools on the vague chain of responsibility laid out in state law. In response, the 2009 Legislature passed a law making charter authorizers, previously referred to as sponsors, directly responsible for the operational and academic performance of their schools.

The new accountability provisions, which took some time to go into effect, hold the state Department of Education responsible for scrutinizing the performance of the groups acting as charter authorizers. The authorizers in turn are expected to demand quality from their schools and to not renew the charters of those that don’t get good results.

At the same time, operators of some of the most successful charters, particularly those that are succeeding in closing the achievement gap, were running into obstacles when it came to replicating their programs.

Last year, CSP asked the Legislature to enact a package it called “Charters 2.0.” While many of its provisions garnered support on both sides of the aisle, badly bruised lawmakers were in a rush to adjourn without doing anything that might prove problematic in the 2012 election. Some of the reforms were enacted and others [PDF] will be introduced in coming weeks.

Accountability measures

The first of the bills the group is advocating would make two big changes. It would require authorizers to close a charter that is in the bottom 15 percent of performers, as defined by the state’s new ratings system, for three years. If an authorizer thought an exception was warranted, it would have to provide a public, written justification to the state commissioner of education.

The bill would also exempt so-called “credit recovery” programs, which serve disadvantaged students who are trying to catch up academically, and schools where 50 percent or more of students are in special-education settings. CSP and other groups last year advocated for the creation of a separate evaluation system to assure quality in alternative programs.   

(Nathan, too, would like to see all schools be allowed to demonstrate accountability using measures other than state-mandated standardized tests. Many types of student success, he and most educators agree, cannot be measured by academic proficiency exams.)

Teacher licensing changes

The other half of the first CSP bill would create a crystal clear teacher licensing provision that would enable odds-beating charters to recruit and retain teachers from other states with the particular skill sets they say factor into their success. The bill proposes creating a “limited reciprocity license” that must be granted to a teacher who is licensed in another state, passes Minnesota’s licensure exams and goes to work in a charter school where at least half the students are impoverished.

Two years ago the Legislature passed a law enabling the licensing of teachers trained in other states in nontraditional teacher-preparation programs, but the state Board of Teaching has yet to create the process for issuing the licenses, which were supposed to become available in August of 2011. Another law would clarify the parameters of the desired pipeline, CSP believes.

The rest of the group’s 2013 legislative wish list involves money to finance the expansion of high-performing charters. A second proposed measure is likely to cap any holdback in state aid to 10 percent in a charter’s first five years of operation and to provide interest-rate-lowering state backing to charters forced by shifts to borrow on the open market.

(The shifts of recent years have proven devastating to charters, many of which were forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on interest payments, instead of teacher salaries and services to students.)

CSP also would like to see charters funded by a general state education levy; since each school is a district, they have no geographic territory to levy. But with a return to a uniform state education levy not part of Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget request, this may be off the table.

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Comments (9)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/29/2013 - 10:09 am.

    In what realm of journalism would it be okay to write a story about a sector and talk ONLY to shills for the sector? Joe Nathan? Al Fan? How about Diane Ravitch, Myron Orfield, or ANYONE critical of the sector? Your bias is showing in glowing letters. Charters are a failed experiment as anyone who looks at them honestly would have to admit.

    • Submitted by Shawn Peterson on 01/29/2013 - 12:34 pm.

      Not an ALL or NONE idea

      Oh yes, because whenever there is a story about traditional public schools, the media always asks for comments and rebuttal from charters and other non traditional school leaders……..NOT! I will put charter success and numbers against traditional schools any day of the week. Just because some have failed, does not mean it is a failed idea, otherwise you would need to shut down the entire Mpls and St. Paul school system. There are great schools in all forms, holding charters to a higher standard, that somehow they ALL need to be successful or none of them count is just silly.

      • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/30/2013 - 08:46 am.

        Charters are touted as a superior model to regular public schools. This is non-controversial. The largest study of charters, the CREDO study, found twice as many charter schools doing more poorly than regular public schools. 17% of charters performed better than their comparable regular public schools, 37 percent performed worse, and the rest were about the same. In any other realm that would be a FAILED experiment – more worse results than better results. Only in the education deform world can people say that charters are making education better when by their own metrics they are, overall, worse.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/29/2013 - 11:35 am.

    I’m afraid I have to echo that complaint of bias in so-called “reporting” here on charter schools. There’s nothing here about the devastation to public schools systems in Minnesota caused by the fake “shift” of their normal tax appropriations to cover the GOP’s inability to raise taxes to meet the budget deficits–public schools also had to use bond issuance that forced them to pay interest instead of salaries. It didn’t just impact charters, as this article implies.

    Then, too, there’s the whole issue of charters, which are now frequently using public tax funds but are not really public institutions, wanting direct tax appropriations for their operations. This country was made on the back of public education, free to all citizens and paid for by citizens through taxes. I’d like to see charters “share” more of their so-called success strategies (beyond strategies that make them really private schools) with public schools.

    Some people obviously think charters are the best thing since sliced bread. But, it looks very definitely to this taxpayer that they are an ever-stronger private alternative to public schools, and wanting ever more public tax dollars to fund themselves and their growth.

  3. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 01/29/2013 - 04:24 pm.

    A few facts based on comments above

    1. Charters are non-sectarian, with no admissions tests, and must meet federal and state accounting requirements and use state tests. They are public schools.

    2. The number of Minnesotans students to charters has increased almost 30,000 in the last decade while the number of students attending district schools has declined by more than 40,000. Charters in Minneapolis and the state enroll a higher % of low income students, students of color and students who don’t speak English than the district public schools.

    Having worked in public education as a parent, aide, teacher, PTA president and in other roles, I don’t know of anyone who thinks “charters are the best thing since sliced bread.”

    3. There are some great district as well as charter schools, and we should be learning from both.
    4. The Center for School Change and I are advocates for strong district & charter public schools. See for example this praise of the work that the CIncinnati Public Schools did with a bit of help from CSC:

    We recognize, support and seek to help create more excellent public schools, whether district or charter. We currently are working on 3 projects that bring together district & charter educators. This includes a Leadership Academy that includes district & charter leaders, and two St. Paul Public School district/charter collaborations.

    5. We also have worked hard to help promote greater use of AP, IB, College in the Schools and PSEO programs. See for example:

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/29/2013 - 08:05 pm.

    Only two people

    …are important to me in this regard. They are is 3-1/2 years and 16 months old, respectively. I worked in public schools for 30 years, and will do whatever I can to see to it that those two children get the best possible education, no matter where it takes place or who organizes and runs it.

    I’m a firm believer, having seriously considered the idea myself, that home schooling is usually an exercise in either ego or ideology. Frequently both. Occasionally, it’s exactly the right choice for a child. More often, it speaks most powerfully to the illusions of the child’s parent(s).

    I remain ambivalent about charter schools. The original rationale was that charters would serve as greenhouses of innovation, from which ideas, materials, approaches and programs would be transplanted to the OTHER public schools in the same district, whose taxpayers were supporting both styles. I’d like to embrace charter schools a bit more, but too often, I’ve seen them touted by their advocates as REPLACEMENTS for public schools rather than as sources of new approaches to education that, having demonstrated their success, will be introduced to all that district’s schools.

    They were not sold to the public originally as replacements for “regular” public education, and in many cases, it’s not the way they’re sold to the public now, even though disparagers of public education often promote charter schools as “the solution” to the yawning achievement gap against which we’ve made little or no progress. Along those lines, it’s useful to note that, overall, charter schools, despite some individual school success stories that are eye-popping, have not, overall, performed any better than their “regular” school counterparts.

    Even more worrisome is the blurring of the lines between public, secular education and the promotion of religious dogma masquerading as education.

    And for me, even more worrisome than a desire on the part of some to drag religion into the classroom and curriculum is the repeated tendency of legislators, many of whom know virtually nothing about schools except that they attended some, to try to dictate everything from curriculum policy to recreational activities in public schools. This places “regular” public schools at a disadvantage, sometimes a significant one, in terms of meeting student needs when compared to many charter schools, which are often given a “pass” when it comes to some of the activities and rules with which “regular” schools have to deal. In legislative halls, especially, is where I’ve heard and read about the substitution of narrowly-focused charter schools for “regular” public schools most often. Since a couple decades of data show that charters perform no better than “regular” public schools overall, I continue to be skeptical about the wisdom of placing too much reliance on charter schools as models for everyone else to follow.

    Some charters have done very well, indeed, and with exactly the kinds of students who most need an extra boost of engagement and individual attention. Kudos to them. There are also “regular” public schools that have gotten the same kinds of results, but that get none of the attention, especially the kind of attention that’s positive, because part of right-wing dogma for the past couple decades has been that public schools are a waste of taxpayer money, staffed by lazy, greedy malcontents who don’t know anything except union work rules, but promote various “alternative” lifestyles that are abhorrent to the dogma-practitioners. That sort of delusional paranoia has gotten far too much attention from a complacent and compliant media.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/29/2013 - 08:39 pm.

    What ?


    1. Charters do not have to take everybody.
    2. You do not speak to the reason charter enrollment has increased ? Could it be underfunding of public schools ? Could it be a form of neo segregation ?
    3. Learning from both. Show me how charters are learning form the publics. I dare you !
    4. Again show me how you Mr Nathan advocate for strong public schools in Minnesota ! Come on I dare you.
    5.And what have you done to trim the waste and free give away credits schools in your camp ? how are you claening the house in the non publics ?
    And lastly.
    6. What are you doing to combat resegregation ?

    • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 01/30/2013 - 05:13 pm.


      1. Charters, by state law, may not have admissions test. District public schools may have admissions tests. Some do, such as Capitol Hill elementary in St. Paul

      2. Charter enrollment has increased because more families have chosen them. Charters receive somewhat less than district schools in Mn. Charters enroll a higher % of low income, limited English speaking and students of color than district public schools in Minneapolis and in Mn.

      3. How do district and charter educators learn from eachother? We brought Cincinnati district public school leaders to Minneapolis. A number of charter as well as district school educators attended the workshop. We brought Joyce Epstein to town, co-sponsored with MPS. Hundreds of people came to hear her describe outstanding examples of district and charter family involvement programs. Last summer district and charter educators came together with college faculty to learn from eachother. Subject was how to improve student achievement in reading, math, writing and biology. Charter and district educators shared ideas with eachother.

      4. Advocating for strong public schools. I write a weekly column in which I regularly describe outstanding district as well as charters. It’s available at There are numerous examples of columns describing, for example,
      a. Collaboration between Long Prairie Grey Eagle HS and Central Lakes
      b. Awards given to Isanti Middle School
      c. Outstanding work in musicals by various metro area (district) high schools
      Also write blog for TC Daily Planet. Numerous examples including recent column quoting MPS and ST. Paul district leaders, plus 20 other district leaders, Ed Mn president and others about priorities for state legislature.

      5. Do you favor allowing African Americans to have a choice of colleges including Morehouse, Howard, Fisk, etc? Is there a difference between requiring people to go to a certain school that is inferior and giving them a variety of choices? Many AFrican Amerians say there is a huge difference.

      Thanks for your questions. Mr. Musich, What are you doing to help more young people succeed?

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/30/2013 - 07:42 am.

    Glad to see some pushback against charters from other people. This site’s coverage of charter schools and the entire deform movement is shameful. It completely ignores a growing movement against the corporatization and privatization of education, and the ongoing destruction of our primary and secondary education caused by those trends. Read Diane Ravitch’s blog someday – any day – and you’ll see links to people around the country fighting back. But according to this website that fight back doesn’t exist, and Beth Hawkins et. al. are constantly finding ponies in a sea of destruction. It is too much of a coincidence that Joel Kramer and his family are financially, ideologically and professionally invested in this kind of coverage.

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