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Coming charter-school contraction hailed as positive step for the Minnesota movement

Over the next few months, Minnesota's charter schools are going to experience something akin to a herd culling.

Painful?

Certainly. But most of the leaders of the state's charter movement — the oldest in the nation — could not be more thrilled.

"It will make our charter movement stronger," explained an enthusiastic Al Fan, executive director of Charter School Partners.

As a result of a sweeping overhaul of the Minnesota law governing charter school oversight, many of the 51 organizations that now serve as the schools' legal sponsors are getting out of the business of chartering.

'Orphaned' schools must seek new sponsors
About to be orphaned, dozens of schools are looking for a new authorizer.

But the authorizers still in the game, now accountable for everything from the schools' test scores to the color of the ink in their check books, are proving choosy. Schools that are getting good results, they say, will find new overseers.


And the underperformers?

"We suspect some of those schools see the proverbial writing on the wall," said Beth Topoluk, charter school liaison for Friends of Education, one of six groups that in May got state permission to continue authorizing schools.

While a wave of school closures would mean some upheaval for students who lack a good alternative to a failing charter school, the contraction is good news for the most part, Fan and others agreed. The initial idea was to offer a choice for students who couldn't succeed in mainstream public schools. Now that choices abound, it's time to focus attention on making sure they're high quality, the reasoning goes.

Nearly two decades after the first charters opened here, Minnesota has more than 150 of the public, independently operated schools, which serve some 33,000 students. Many more have opened and closed in that time, often the victims of financial mismanagement or a lack of strong leadership.

Academic performance, too, has been all over the map.

Fifteen of the 20 high-poverty schools with the highest scores on this year's standardized state tests — "beat the odds" schools — were charters. Meanwhile, 11 of the state's 26 so-called persistent underperformers are charters. The Minnesota Department of Education recently concluded that seven of those programs did not have the capacity to implement radical "turnaround" plans.

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, and with the charter movement's backing, the state Legislature last year passed a law making charter authorizers, previously referred to as sponsors, directly responsible for the operational and academic performance of their schools.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman
Sen. Kathy Saltzman

"We needed to clean up our own sandbox," said the law's main author, Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury. "I think it only happened because of the many reports coming in that were disturbing to the public."

New state law among nation's toughest
Written with the assistance of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in Chicago, the new law has been described as the nation's toughest. The fine print takes up pages, but the gist is that authorizers must now answer to the education department for the performance of the schools they agree to charter.

The schools and their boards in turn will be subject to much more intensive scrutiny by the authorizers. To pay for the staff and outside contractors needed to review the books and analyze testing data, the schools will be required to pay a per-pupil fee to the authorizers.

Authorizers that want to continue to charter schools must win education department approval by June 30, 2011. So far, 13 have applied and six have been approved. In recent days, the department opened a second application period that runs until Sept. 23.

Several sponsors, including the department itself, have already decided not to seek approval.

In part, that's because, as organizations with a particular mission, many early sponsors chartered just one or two schools and thus lacked the capacity to do more than rely on the schools' boards to keep things running smoothly.

But faced with fiscal crises and achievement gaps of their own, public school districts are also thinking twice. Keith Lester, superintendent of the 1,700-student Brooklyn Center Community Schools, was quick to opt out, telling BlueSky Online school it would have to find another authorizer.

"I was basically the only person doing it, and I'm supposed to be running the district, too," he explained.

Valeria Silva
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Valeria Silva

St. Paul Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva last month told the school board she thought the district should follow suit. The board is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to tell the six charters the district sponsors to find new authorizers.

(In contrast, after several years of study, Minneapolis Public Schools recently embraced the idea of charter sponsorship. The district's first charter is set to open this fall, and at least two others are expected to come online next year.)

Because it's unknown how many potential authorizers will be able to convince the state they can provide enough oversight, no one knows how many charters will end up shopping for new minders.

Early sponsor already getting inquiries
The first nonprofit charter sponsor in the nation, Volunteers of America, has fielded a number of inquiries, according to Katie Piehl, director of charter school authorization. Just two have actually applied.

"I think that's because those schools see what we're asking, what we require," said Piehl.

In addition to fitting in with the organization's mission — among other things, to serve small schools targeted at communities in need — schools seeking VOA authorization must demonstrate academic success as well as sound governance.

VOA looks for financial stability and policies that show that a charter's board is actively scrutinizing everything from the school's checkbook entries to its audits. A healthy reserve fund is especially crucial right now, given that the state is "holding back" 30 percent of funding for fiscal year 2011.

The group also delves into the composition of the board, making sure it's in a good position to evaluate the school's director. "We work to empower the board and to ensure the board is as strong as possible because we know that strong charters have strong boards," Piehl said.

If the applicant is an existing school seeking a new authorizer, VOA staff visit the school and try to talk to students, staff and parents.

In the 10 years it has been chartering schools, VOA has authorized 14; a 15th is slated to open this fall. From the outset, the organization was not satisfied with the state's threshold for accountability, Piehl said.

"Minnesota has not had a great reputation for quality of oversight," she said.

Because VOA placed so many demands on its schools, it had little to do to comply with the new state law. Similarly, Piehl expects the most successful charters will have little trouble satisfying new sponsors.

"High-quality charters with good track records won't have a problem finding a new authorizer," she said.

"We've received a flurry of inquiries and only one application," said Friends of Education's Topoluk.

Schools may be waiting to see which authorizers emerge from the next round of applications to the state, she speculated: "We could get a late fall or spring crush."

If the winnowed field of authorizers does indeed face an onslaught, she and others in the charter movement say they plan to stick to their standards, and they hope the Legislature does, too.

"The concern should be on what's best for our children," said Topoluk. "Choice for choice's sake in Minnesota hasn't been a success. What the focus needs to be on is quality of choices."

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.

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Comments (6)

This is a very disturbing article because it is extremely one sided and only tells half the story of how the charter school movement is being taken over by a very conservative and narrowly focused side of the Charter School world. You really should broaden your perspective. These are not the leaders of the Charter School movement they are the leaders of the Core Knowledge movement and are not at all part of the leaders who originally brought the Charter School idea to Minnesota to promote innovation and encourage parent and teacher involvement in new school design. The core knowledge folks are the ones who brought us Ed. Commissioner Yecke who was very divisive and opinionated. Perhaps there are some who are pleased with this outcome but not those who brought the original idea of Charter Schools to Minnesota. This is very disappointing news.

The 2009 charter law amendments were based on a defined and known need that authorizers should and could improve their oversight of charter schools. MDE, having opposed the changes in the first place, has effectively rejected this premise and instead has expanded, not limited, MDE's control and micro-management of the charter school industry, authorizers and schools alike.

At a time when Republicans and our Governor were promoting the value of varying types of public education, MDE chose to go exactly the opposite way.

In principal, the 2009 changes (in my view reaffirmed that) sponsors/authorizers were to have greater authority and oversight responsibility with MDE having more of an administrative oversight role. As originally conceived, and confirmed in the 2009 changes, the sponsor and school developers were charged with deciding if the school being created was a sound educational concept. MDE was then to review the contract to assure that the school was compliant with all applicable state regulations.

Beginning with Ms. Yecke's tenure and since, MDE has instead decided that charter schools must all be alike. MDE acted accordingly as if it, not the sponsor, had the responsibility to decide if the school concept was viable. MDE reviewed school expansions, opening of new schools, opening new sites, and like issues with little regard to the statute provisions --- instead imposing its own administrative rules in wildly varying ways.

The 2009 amendments were resisted by MDE since they were intended and seen as shifting authority control over the the sponsor/authorizer and charter schools away from MDE --- all as originally intended in the law as known to all of us who worked on the concept at the Citizens' League and participated in drafting the law that was passed in 1991.

From the outset, MDE leadership set out to use bureaucratic process to slow and deflect the newly defined role of authorizers. MDE administrative decisions were delayed (many of us think intentionally) to generate immense uncertainty for existing schools and sponsors. Many MDE processes in the new process are directly in conflict with the new provisions --- and these have continued throughout the process of reviewing authorizer applications for certification.

Inadvertently, perhaps intentionally, the MDE process has left much of the charter school in uncertainty if not chaos. Applications for certification as authorizers were rated by persons unknown, against models of other states which had little relevance to the Minnesota process, and were, in my judgment and others who have been in the process, were based largely on the premise that any application was assumed to be inadequate.

The outcome: about 100 charter schools face contract renewal challenges at June 30, 2011. At the same time, MDE has set out on a course to delay approvals of authorizers and new schools which almost certainly will lead to a contraction of the number of charter schools for reasons completely unrelated to whether or not a sponsor and school are on course to improve educational outcomes for students.

This was never intended by the new law --- but became an MDE policy early on as evidenced by the failure to publish authorizer application processes until Feb/March 2010.

The applications as drafted were a classic reminder of MDE's attitude in recent years (astonishing given the Governor's outward promoting and support of charters as an important educational change) towards charter schools: one size fits all, but seemingly baffled by schools that are based on differing educational concepts (nearly all of which have sound theory and practice supporting them).

MDE staff know and understand traditional school districts. In recent years, MDE reviewed charter school applications thru lenses that were in focus if the applications were of one kind --- undercutting the creativity and entrepreneurship that was at the core of the charter school concept in the first place.

In effect, MDE administratively ignored and undercut the underlying concept of the 2009 amendments (to shift more authority to sponsors/authorizers) and instead imposed unwanted and narrow "one size fits all" concepts.

I agree with Rep. Bly and Mr. Cairns. A smaller and more homogeneous chartered sector will shortly prove to be a terrible embarrassment for the state of Minnesota and a needless stain on the record of a governor who has championed the idea of having an innovative sector of schools that provide a wide variety of choices that match the wide variety of interests and learning styles of today's youth. Sen. Saltzman's remarks were directed at the need to strengthen authorizing. No one disagrees with that. But I don't believe she would agree with the ideologues who are trying to destroy the innovative capacity of the chartered sector.

We can all agree on having strong charter schools and strong authorizers but this article distorts the meaning of strong to mean traditional.

What excited many of us with the charter statute was its purpose to encourage innovation because it was so hard (impossible) to create new models of education inside the system.

Now comes the squeeze to highjack the charter statute for super traditional schools only. First, enemies of charter schools tried to demonize it. When that didn't work, they are strangling it to death with regulations. Or to control it so that once again, innovation or change is impossible. No, we're not "thrilled" by these developments.

It appears the author didn't do her homework by talking with a greater variety of people. The current administration at the Minnesota Department of Education have done great damage over the past 8 years to the reputation of Minnesota for fresh approaches to education.

Hawkins should know better. She writes, "The initial idea was to offer a choice for students who couldn't succeed in mainstream public schools."

Having helped start and worked at the ST. Paul Open School, and having helped write the Minnesota charter law, I think her assertion is wrong. The original idea of chartering public schools was to provide new options for all kinds of students, families and educators. The original ideas was NOT just to provide options for students who are not succeeding.

There are many other problems with this piece, but I'll just cite this one.

The article on Charter Schools by Beth Hawkins was very misleading. The people she quotes are leaders of a small, very conservative group within the larger charter school movement. The authorizers that may be cut currently sponsor many schools that serve poor students. In our case, the average student enters at the age of 17 and a half, reads below the sixth grade level, and has been in at least three high schools. 25% are homeless and about the same proportion are raising children. They rarely transfer from another school; our staff reaches out to them at the homeless shelters, to probation officers and on the street in Downtown Minneapolis at night. There is a lot of starting and stopping, but those that stay have huge academic growth. Our students have also built three houses in North Minneapolis from scratch through our vocational programs. We have never been in Statutory Operating Debt (SOD) as have many traditional school districts. We are sponsored by Pillsbury United Communities, which has worked tirelessly to help Minneapolis residents grow out of poverty for 120 years. They have not been approved yet for remaining an authorizer. Nearly all of their schools serve the very poor as we do.

Research shows that children in schools which are closed do NOT do well in their new environment. Our students have not done well in traditional school environments. I would like to know what would be “thrilling” about closing a school like ours, and ejecting 300 of Minneapolis’ most unfortunate young students.

What does a thrill like that feel like?