Minnesota appears ready to lay some tough love on one of its most celebrated school choice creations -- charter schools.
Big changes in the way the state's 153 charter schools are monitored and regulated are likely to emerge from this year's legislative session. If so, it would be the first time since 1991, when the state blazed a national trail by passing charter school legislation, that state lawmakers have overhauled the system in such a way.
Minnesota's charters, which serve 30,000 students, will probably face a future of tighter controls, more oversight and increased training for charter school teachers and governing boards. Over the years, charter schools have been battered by problems with poor student performance, fiscal woes, conflicts of interest and charges of inappropriate mixing of public education and private religion.
But supporters argue that the schools mostly work and that they provide specialized teaching for students who might not flourish in a normal public school classroom. Charters are also a cornerstone of school choice and have become an accepted part of the state's K-12 landscape.
Both the House and Senate are studying the charter schools issue and plan to introduce bills to tighten regulations.
"The public is questioning how the schools are operating," said Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, and chairwoman of the Senate charter schools working group. "And there are some charter schools that aren't working."
Proposed legislation should also come from the Department of Education in February. Minnesota Association of Charter Schools officials beat everyone to the punch Thursday, presenting a proposal for legislation.
Association Executive Director Eugene Piccolo said the proposal recommends tightening conflict-of-interest laws to prevent more than one family member from serving on boards, requiring board members to undergo training in both financial matters and board responsibilities, and limits to the practice of sponsors selling services to the charter schools they are supposed to oversee. Many of the measures, Piccolo said, are meant to answer legislative critics who argue that charters haven't been accountable enough for their governance and operations.
"We're trying to say to those legislators that we're trying to clean up our act," he said.
Piccolo said such proposals are not related to the lawsuit filed Wednesday against the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy charter school by the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit charges that the school promotes the Muslim religion.
"We'll have to see if it goes far enough," said Saltzman of the association's plan. Her counterpart in the House, Rep. Linda Slocum, DFL-Richfield, said, "I'm thrilled with this bill." She said much of it could find its way into bills drafted later in the session.
Another six charter schools have been approved to open this fall, Piccolo said. On the average, problems of some sort doom anywhere from one to seven charters schools a year.
A report issued by the Office of the Legislative Auditor last summer found that oversight of charter schools was "unclear and complex," and was duplicated in some areas, and nonexistent in others. It also noted that charters often posted poorer test scores than their regular public school counterparts. On the flip side, it noted that charter schools appeared to have made great strides in terms of school finances. In 2002, one-quarter of the state's charters were in financial trouble, the report found. By 2007, that had dropped to 13 percent.
Legislators are likely to propose freezing the number of new charters. In part, that's in response to criticism that charters suck students, and the state money that comes with them, out of the regular schools. Also, such a freeze could save money. According to House figures, the state spent more than $69 million last year and this year providing aid to charter schools to rent building space.