Round 1 is over in what's likely the big charter school issue of the year: A bill, authored by Rep. Linda Slocumb (DFL — Richfield/Bloomington) and supported by the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools cleared the House Education Oversight Committee on Wednesday, with a recomendation to pass the bill after it has been examined by the House Finance Committee. The bill is similar to one proposed earlier this year by MACS, and includes clarification of the relationship between charter schools and religious instruction – schools will be allowed to excuse students for up to three hours a week for religious instruction, but those class must not take place on school grounds.
This has been something of a grey area up until now. Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (better known as TIZA), in Inver Grove Heights, fell afoul of this ambiguity earlier this year when the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the school, aledging the school violated the seperation of church and state. Under current legislation, churches are not allowed to sponsor charter schools, said Eugene Piccolo, the Executive Director of MCSA, when I interviewd him back in January. On top of that, religious iconography is barred from charter school buildings. However, charters are allowed to rent space from churches, creating a decided semblance of impropriety. When I visited Nova Classical Academy earlier this month, I was taken aback by a HUGE steel cross topping Nova's building, a rented former parochial school.
As with most pieces of legislation, this one got several amendments in committee. One of these, sponsored by Rep. Sadra Peterson, proposes a ban on any new or existing charter schools moving in a mile or less from a public school that has been closed for 36 months after the closing, unless the local school board aproves of the move.
"For small towns, loosing a school is like the dying of the town," Piccolo told me after the first hearing on Tuesday. "It's a sign that you are giving up on the town."
With an ongoing statewide decline in the number of school-aged children, many districts will have to close schools they don't have the money to continue operating. One school district has already folded completely.
The problem, says both Peterson and Piccolo, is that when angry and grieving parents try to start a charter school to replace the closing public school, no-one benefits.
"When that happens," said Peterson after Tuesday's hearing, "you've just defeated the whole purpose of closing a school - the pulic school district looses studends [and therefore per-pupil funding from the state] to the charter school, and they'll probably have to close another school" to make up for it. The cost of the first school, she said, gets shifted to the state in the form of state lease aid to the new charter school.
"Has this happened in the past? Sure. But it will happen more in the future," Peterson predicted.
Piccolo said he and MCSA opposes the proposed ban because the current approval process for charter schools should suffice. "That's where the authorizer [currently called the sponsor] and the Department of Education need to do their due diligence," he said, to make sure the charter school isn't being started to take advantage of parents' grief.
"This amendment gives veto power over new charter schools to local school boards," Piccolo said. These school boards, he said, would be tempted to oppose new charter schools in order to protect their enrollment numbers, and thus their state funding.