New oversight law worries charter schools

River's Edge Academy
River's Edge Academy, a charter school on Harriet Island in St. Paul, is in its second year of operation. Its sponsor, Audubon Center of the North Woods, hasn't yet received the approval it needs by next June 30 to continue as an authorizer of charter schools in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Some charter school leaders in Minnesota say a new law has them worried about their futures. The law was meant to strengthen oversight of charter school. But some advocates say the new rules are stifling, not encouraging, their work.

One such charter school is River's Edge Academy, a high school on Harriet Island, near downtown St. Paul. It's an environmentally focused school that wants to be small -- fewer than 100 students. Monday morning marked the start of its second year.

River's Edge director Meg Cavalier says the school's focus on field work and "learning expeditions" fills a need.

"The majority of students in charter schools are looking for something different, because they haven't been successful in the mainstream," she said.

The nonprofit entity that oversees River's Edge still doesn't have the permission it needs by next summer to stay in the charter school business. And that makes Cavalier nervous.

"I think many charter schools will continue to thrive. I fear that it will look very different than it does right now, meaning I think innovation has already been stifled," she said.

"I don't see how this is going to stifle innovation in the charter school movement."

At issue is a new law regulating charter school authorizers. For years, advocates say the role of the authorizer hasn't been well defined. Authorizers don't actually run charter schools; they oversee the people who run charter schools.

But in the past, authorizers didn't have to provide much detail explaining how they would carry out that oversight.

The new law requires authorizers to demonstrate their own financial viability. Nonprofits, for example, must have fund balances of at least $2 million. They also must show they have the staff needed to do the job, and they must outline how they plan to manage the schools they charter, and measure whether their own schools are meeting academic benchmarks.

To meet the new law's requirements, the nearly 50 current authorizers in Minnesota must reapply with the Minnesota Department of Education to keep being an authorizer.

The Audubon Center of the North Woods is one of the state's largest authorizers of charter schools. The center authorizes River's Edge Academy and nearly two dozen others. Its initial bid to continue as an authorizer was rejected this summer.

The Education Department approved only six authorizers at that time. The Audobon Center's Steve Dess is worried about that low rate of approval. He says the initial process seemed heavy on bureaucracy, and didn't put enough value on the sponsors' strategies and innovations for running their charter schools.

Officials at the state Education Department say the criticism isn't warranted. Spokesman Bill Walsh says there will be more approvals in coming months.

"I don't see how this is going to stifle innovation in the charter school movement," said Walsh. "There's a full expectation that a vast majority of the charter schools that are chartered today will be chartered next year, and hook up with one of these authorizers."

Walsh also calls "insulting" insinuations that politics were part of the process. Two of the six authorizers that won approval are tied to Friends of Education, an organization whose chairman is TCF Bank CEO Bill Cooper.

Cooper has long been involved with charter schools. He's also a former chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party and a longtime supporter of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Beth Topoluk with Friends of Education says it's nonsense to think there's a quid pro quo going on.

"Bill Cooper has devoted a significant amount of his personal resources to work for the education of children, especially the disadvantaged child. That's all he's trying to do," she said.

Walsh, with the state Education Department, notes that applications were reviewed by people outside Minnesota, and final decisions at the department were made using a blind process, so officials didn't know whose applications they were approving or rejecting.

Audubon Center plans to reapply by the June 30, 2011 deadline, but several others have already said they won't, because the new process is too time-consuming. Those include the Brooklyn Center, Hopkins, and Le Sueur-Henderson school districts. The charter schools those districts operate now must find new authorizers.

At least one -- Blue Sky Charter, which had been with Brooklyn Center -- already has. Meanwhile, the St. Paul, Osseo, Chaska, and Stillwater districts haven't yet decided whether to reapply for their charter schools.

State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, helped write the new authorizer law. She says it's possible the process will initially mean fewer charter schools and authorizers.

"I see this as sort of a dip. And over time, I anticipate that if we stay the course, the charter schools we do have will be much stronger, will serve students better. And that's what this is all about," said Saltzman.

The next round of applications is due Sept. 28. The state will decide the fate of those bids by the end of the year.

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