Fate of 20 Minn. charter schools at risk as sponsor deadline nears

St. Paul City School
St. Paul City School, located in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, is one of at least 20 charter schools in Minnesota still waiting for state approval to switch to a new authorizer. Leaders of the schools fear they'll have to close if the state doesn't act by a June 30 deadline.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The leaders of 20 charter schools across Minnesota are wondering if next week might be their last in business. They all had to find new sponsors this year, but the switch to a new sponsor still hasn't earned final approval from the state education department.

State law requires all charter schools to have an approved authorizer in place by June 30. If they don't, they must close.

New Country School in rural Henderson, Minnesota opened 17 years ago as one of the nation's first charter schools. Since then, the school's unique teaching model has been replicated across the nation.

School director Dee Thomas said the accolades have followed, including recognition from the federal government for closing the achievement gap.

"This fall we were in Ladies Home Journal as one of the ten most amazing schools in America, and yet we can't get our authorizer through," Thomas said.

Thomas said she's frustrated and puzzled that she might have to close for something she thinks should be a formality. The state Education Department still hasn't approved her new sponsor, even though her application was sent nearly three months ago.

The issue stems from a law two years ago that essentially created a new framework under which charter schools operate in Minnesota, especially for authorizers. Authorizers don't run charter schools, but they oversee their management.

The authorizers must now follow detailed protocols for the schools they sponsor, on everything from finances to academics. The law was largely heralded when passed and is still lauded for its goals, but it's been criticized for the way it's been implemented.

All existing authorizers had to re-apply to prove they could keep sponsoring charters under the new rules. The process that was long and arduous, according to several who went through it.

What surprised some of them was the next step — the transfers of existing charter schools to new authorizers — which they say proved to be just as stressful.

Eugene Piccolo with the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools said he understands why the state wanted a rigorous review of new authorizers. But now that they've been approved, he wonders why these same authorizers are also getting such a detailed review for the transfer process.

"If you just approved the authorizer within the last six months, and the school's been OK in its operation, this should be pretty pro forma," Piccolo said.

Twenty charter schools who have applied to transfer to an approved authorizer are still waiting for the state to approve that transfer. Piccolo said he's worried charters will close because of the state, not the schools, missed a deadline.

It makes Piccolo and others wonder whether this isn't a ploy to close charter schools. The Department of Education strongly rejects that claim.

"There is no plan here to get rid of charters," said David Hartman, who heads the charter school office at the department. He said the review will ensure authorizers are doing the work they were just approved to do and that they're finding the best charter schools to sponsor.

"Outcomes for charter schools in Minnesota have not always been as high as we would hope," Hartman said. "We want to see high-quality charter schools exist because we think it's a fantastic choice in Minnesota, and this is a way for us to fulfill that promise."

Hartman said the 20 schools in limbo will hear from him before next Thursday's deadline. But he's not guaranteeing all those responses will be approvals, which he acknowledges could mean some schools will have to close.

The 20 schools in limbo include Lake Superior High in Duluth, Discovery School in Faribault and St. Paul City School, where Nancy Dana is director.

"I can't talk about closing. I just won't. I can't go there yet," Dana said.

Without word from the state, Dana's teachers have been looking for new jobs, just in case. She applied to be sponsored by a group called Novation Education Opportunities, or NEO. And in the meantime is trying to reassure parents.

NEO is waiting to hear on 14 transfers; another group, Audubon Center of the North Woods, is awaiting six transfers. Bryan Rossi, director of NEO, said the state isn't communicating with him in a timely or cost-effective manner.

Some of the 20 schools, like New Country School, could stay open by utilizing a one-year extension that was granted this year. But the extension won't apply to Nancy Dana at St. Paul City School because her old authorizer won't take her back, as would be needed.

"It is just painful to have it done this way; there's got to be another way to look at it," she said.

David Hartman at the Education Department acknowledges the stress, but said it's necessary to assure the best-quality charters in the state.