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Charter-school kudos — and a wish list

Local charter school advocates are polishing the agate type on proposed legislation they say would further strengthen the state’s charter policies.

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.

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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.