Mpls. teachers' union wants power to authorize new charter schools

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers
The offices of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, in northeast Minneapolis. The union plans to apply to the state to become a charter school authorizer, which would potentially make it the first teachers' union in the nation to be an authorizer.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Nearly 20 years after becoming the first state to allow charter schools, Minnesota could soon have another charter first.

The state's charter schools operate under the oversight of an authorizer, which is usually a non-profit organization, a university or a school district. Unlike traditional public school systems, they don't have the authority to levy taxes but receive state education money for each student.

Now the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the local teachers' union, wants to get into the game.

The union plans to apply to become a charter school authorizer, something no other teachers' union in the country does. The move would allow teachers to play a larger role in how schools operate, and to use skills most effectively, said Lynn Nordgren, president of the 3,734-member union.

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"We've learned so much more about learning styles and cultural styles that we've kind of piled up a lot of programs and rules and systems that have, actually -- instead of helped teaching -- weighed it down," she said. "What we'd like to do is get out from under those bureaucracies."

Nordgren said she has no idea what kind of charter school her union might authorize, but existing charter schools include those focused on language immersion, science or immigrant students. She said the larger goal would be designing schools with the best professional practices: mentoring, collaboration, plenty of planning time, and a strong induction period for new teachers.

Better teachers, Nordgren said, always produce better students.

Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, calls the union's proposal a "fascinating idea."

"The traditional role of a union is around worker issues, rather than management - overseeing of management," Piccolo said. "So it would a very different role that the union would be taking on in this case."

Here's how that role would work:

Charter schools are overseen by school boards, much the way traditional public school districts are. In traditional public districts, voters oversee school boards. With charter schools, the authorizer does.

The authorizer doesn't run the charter school. But it does decide whether to open the school in the first place, and whether to close it if the school isn't meeting benchmarks.

Current authorizers in Minnesota include the Minneapolis School Board, Anoka Technical College, and several non-profits.

None of the roughly 150 charter schools in Minnesota have unionized teachers and only 12 percent of charter schools nationally do, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. But Nordgren hopes her union would only authorize schools that plan to be unionized, even though her organization could not force any of its schools to do so.

"We believe that unions actually make school systems and learning better being united professionals, who have standards of effectiveness, who have time for collaboration built into their work," she said. "We can get those things guaranteed if we're in a union."

But the union's plan is not a done deal. Minnesota's Department of Education has final say and officials there signaled earlier this summer that they plan to use a new state law to clamp down on who can authorize charter schools.

The new law more clearly defines the role of authorizers. They must follow stricter financial and academic rules, along with national standards for charter school oversight. Only six of the first 13 groups that applied under the new law won approval.

William Haft, vice president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, helped state officials set up the new process. He said the job of an authorizer is now under heightened scrutiny in Minnesota, regardless of whether the authorizer is a non-profit, a college, or a union.

"If you're going to choose to be an authorizer, it needs to be more than a pet project," Haft said. "You need to have structures in place and it needs to really be a professional educational activity. If they have a sound plan to carry it out and carry out the responsibilities of being an authorizer, great."

Union leaders say they've already been meeting with people who might want to open a charter school. If the process moves quickly and they win state approval, the first of those schools could open as early as Fall, 2011.