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Charter schools constantly face criticisms about their supposed lack of oversight and financial controls that lead, it is said, to corruption, fraud, and profiteering. That may be true in some states with weak charter school laws, but not all states have that problem. Charter school laws vary wildly across the 43 states that have them. And, the fact is, education reformers have been leaders in calling for better accountability.

In Minnesota, we moved years ago to make entities that authorize charter schools more honest and responsible. Now we face different questions. Did we go too far? Did attempts to increase accountability weaken the pool of innovative players creating new schools?

Consider this: in 2009 our state had over 50 entities serving as authorizers for charter schools, including traditional public school districts, private and public colleges, and community based nonprofits.

Today that number has dropped by more than half.

Soon even more will leave the charter space. Authorizers bailing out in the coming year include the Rochester Community Technical College, the Rushford Peterson Independent School District, Augsburg College, Concordia University, the Minneapolis Public School District, the University of Minnesota – Duluth, the YMCA, the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, and the Project for Pride in Living.

That drop is alarming.

Yes, we’ve had a bad actor or two, but Minnesota has mostly been the land of many not-for-profit, community-based charter schools that resemble the culture of the communities they spring from. We’ve had a vibrant charter school sector here characterized by plenty of educational and cultural innovation.

Now, the birthplace of charter schools is experiencing waning interest in authorization, and it seems we’re resigned to accept it.

Partially because our virtue is our vice. Other states still wrestle with loose laws that breed lax accountability and rampant fraud, but Minnesota blunted that problem by passing stiffer regulations for authorizers seven years ago. The result has been the above mentioned decline in the number of groups willing to be responsible for overseeing charter school operators.

Quality watchers will say that’s a good thing. Only strong authorizers are allowed to participate. Yet, community-based groups looking to educate the most marginalized students, like high school dropouts and American Indians, say it has become too difficult to work in Minnesota.

This is the part where I need to make clear my support for accountability. While I believe deeply in the pursuit of innovation, the dedication to urgency about ending racial gaps in student achievement, and the need to set schools free from bureaucracy, I know all of that together can set the stage for Michigan style catastrophe without safeguards.

While not all charter folks are fans, reformers at the highest levels have agreed for a long while.

In 2007 the U.S. Department of Education released a guide for improving the charter school sector through focusing on “quality” authorizers.

They said:

Most policymakers, charter school operators, and others immersed in the charter school movement since it began in the early 1990s have focused their attention primarily on charter schools, not on the public bodies that license these schools to operate. As the charter school movement has grown, however, there has been increasing recognition that effective charter school authorizing is critical to the success of the charter school sector. Charter school authorizers are entities charged by law to approve new schools, monitor their compliance with applicable laws and regulations, and evaluate their performance to make decisions about charter renewal and closure. The role of charter authorizers* has become particularly important in the context of increasing accountability under the no Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).

The next year their department issued a bullish report on charter schools that called for authorizers to “enhance their capacity to approve and oversee high-quality charter schools” as a strategy for increasing the sector’s contributions to gains in student achievement.

That national sentiment made it to Minnesota. In 2008, our state auditor released a report with recommendations for improving authorizer quality. Several of the report’s recommendations made it into an education bill that passed in 2009.

The result was increased training for charter school board members, strict rules against financial gain for school sponsors, prohibitions against allowing students to pray on school property (the State School Boards Association representative said charter schools were “too cozy” with churches), and tighter restrictions on those allowed to authorize or sponsor a school.

At the time school reformers agreed. Eugene Picollo, head of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools said “The bill represents all the principles and all the goals we’ve had in strengthening accountability and intensifying the responsibility for schools and authorizers.”

That was then.

Today, after seeing how it played out, he might see it a little differently.

A blog post by Education Evolving, an outfit run by at least one godfather of school chartering, Ted Kolderie, explains:

Under the 2009 law, [the Minnesota Department of Education] is supposed to review each authorizer every five years. MDE is currently using a consulting firm from Chicago to conduct the reviews. Some recent applicants for renewal were told they didn’t meet the requirements and had to reapply after making several changes. Picollo believes that Minnesota is the only state that requires such a detailed review of authorizers by the state.

Dr. Chris Richardson, Superintendent of Northfield School District, which has been a sponsor/authorizer since 2002, says the process the district had to go through in 2011 to be approved under the new rules was rigorous and time-consuming, but that the process to get renewed has proven to be even more so, requiring a 23-page application and over 600 pages of documentation.

Even after all that work, Northfield was told its application was unsatisfactory and that it had to go through a revision process before it could be renewed as an authorizer. Richardson believes that the new time-consuming process for approval and renewal has convinced a number of authorizers that sponsoring a charter school has become more trouble than it is worth.

“I think we lost some really good people to this process,” says Richardson.

While nearly everyone agrees charter school authorizers need to be accountable, it’s fair to question whether empowering the MDE is best the way to make it happen. Charter school operators have constantly complained – albeit privately – about hostility in MDE toward charters. It doesn’t help that department staff have had unmistakable ties with Education Minnesota, our state teachers’ union. That includes a high ranking department official (now retired) who once was as Education Minnesota’s lobbyist.

Rose Hermandson, MDE’s former assistant commissioner of education, lobbied for Education Minnesota in 1991 against the first charter school law, over the objections of educators, school board members, and the NAACP. Back then she said “Here we are using public money to fund quasi-private schools…the existing system is already delivering a wide array of creative options.” To be fair, that was way back in the dark ages before outcomes for children of color mattered in Minnesota.

Today we at least admit black lives matter even if we don’t adjust our mainline schools to reflect that reality.

Let’s agree that charter schools need to be accountable, and those that oversee them must be on the hook for keeping them clean. But I fear Minnesota’s version of tighter controls, if too saddled with politics and rules, might stunt the charter school sector to the point that it hurts the purpose of chartering – to create a productive space that innovates beyond the limits of traditional schools trapped in district bureaucracies.

That’s not good for kids who live in a state where the fourth grade reading proficiency for black students is 17%, a point above Louisiana.

Our charter school opponents here face reformers of the gentlest kind. We have no Eva Moskowitz. Our charter leaders are moderates who drive the accountability train themselves without a lot of prompting.  One of the most learned of them, Bob Wedl at Education Evolving concedes we may be going too far.

“There may be some overkill by the Department,” he says.

Truly, that’s very strong language in Minnesota.

Citizen Stewart

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