Dozens of Minnesota charter schools face an uncertain future -- and some could be forced to close this summer -- as they adapt to a 2009 law designed to tighten supervision of their innovative programs.
State law requires every charter school to be paired with a school district, college or nonprofit that monitors its finances and student performance. Under legislation passed in 2009, these "authorizers" have until June 30 to demonstrate that they're capable of keeping closer tabs on the schools than was previously required.
But some authorizers, unwilling or unable to take on the task, plan to cut ties with their schools. Others have seen their applications rejected by the Minnesota Department of Education. Still others aren't eligible under the new law, or are still getting ready to apply.
As a result, 64 charter schools, with perhaps 13,000 students, have yet to nail down an authorizer for the 2011-12 school year. Leaders at some schools -- especially those with low test scores or other problems -- worry they won't be able to sign on a new authorizer in time to avert closure.
"If we don't have one by June 30, we're not in business," said Nancy Dana, executive director of St. Paul City School, which has about 350 students in preschool through grade eight.
The deadline is one piece of a 2009 law that aims to close loopholes and tighten the reins on charter schools. Supporters also say it will give the state -- and authorizers -- more power to close troubled schools.
Some charter schools have thrived in the years since 1991, when Minnesota became the first state to pass a law enabling the special public schools. But others have been plagued by low test scores, mismanagement or even theft. The reviews are "really the first time that authorizers have been held accountable for the performance of the schools which they authorize," said David Hartman, acting supervisor of the Education Department's Charter School Center.
Shortage of authorizers?
Right now, Minnesota has about 45 authorizers overseeing 149 charter schools. So far, the Education Department has approved 15, but it has rejected applications from another 10. The next deadline for applications is in mid-February.
Some groups that serve as authorizers have said they're getting out, including the Education Department itself and districts such as St. Paul.
"The responsibilities for authorizers have increased" under the new law, said Michelle Walker, chief accountability officer for St. Paul schools. The district has been a good authorizer, but continuing would require "a level of capacity that we don't have at this point." That's why St. Paul City School -- one of six schools now overseen by the St. Paul district -- needs a new authorizer, Dana said.
But finding one "is not a slam dunk by any means," she said. Dana worries that 15 state-approved authorizers is too few to take on every school that needs one by the deadline. Some authorizers are set up to serve schools with a particular focus, she said. Others don't want to take on additional schools.
St. Paul City School also has problems of its own. Located in the Frogtown neighborhood, it serves many minority and poor students; 97 percent qualify for free or discounted lunches, Dana said. Last spring the school, which used to be called New Spirit School, was tagged by the Education Department as one of the state's persistently lowest-performing schools on measures that included leadership, instructional practices and community involvement. Dana said she is hopeful that her school will find a new authorizer, adding, "I don't want to be overly optimistic."
Legislation proposed this year would give authorizers an extra year to gain approval, but the Dayton administration hasn't yet indicated support. If the extension is not approved, "In the worst-case scenario, we could probably lose 30 to 40 schools," said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. Even a new deadline might not save some schools whose authorizers have said they plan to sever ties.
The nonprofit Northwood Children's Services oversees six schools, including Duluth Edison Charter Schools. Northwood has had two applications rejected and its appeals denied, said president Richard Wolleat. Wolleat said several of its schools are geared to at-risk students, many of whom struggled in traditional schools and don't do well on standardized tests. He said state officials denied Northwood largely because "we've not been able to make the case to their satisfaction that we would have rigorous and defensible [alternate] standards in place to measure students' progress."
He said he is "probably disinclined" to apply again. "We've actually kind of had four strikes."
Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), a charter school with campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, needs a new authorizer because the organization that oversees it now is based out of state, which isn't allowed under the new law, said Blois Olson, a Twin Cities public relations executive who has acted as TiZA's spokesman.
The charter school, its current authorizer and the Education Department are embroiled in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota over allegations that TiZA has illegally promoted religion. School officials are confident they will find a new authorizer in time, Olson said.
Augsburg College, which plans to continue overseeing its five charter schools, is still preparing its application, said Chris Brown, the college's charter school liaison. "It's rather daunting, and I think that's a good thing, given the history of charter school sponsorship," he said.
Charter schools have always had to have outside oversight, he said, but "to be honest, in the 1990s, sponsors ... largely signed on the line and went away."