Changes in Minnesota's charter school rules are causing some of the legally required sponsors of the schools to get out of the oversight business. Concerned that new state laws require more work and resources than their tight budgets can bear, some school districts and the state say they will no longer serve as official monitors of the programs.
Some charter school leaders worry those decisions will reduce the number of charters. Existing schools may close without new sponsors. Others will put off expanding or changing buildings while they search for sponsors. And charter advocates worry that the tighter regulations will discourage the creation of new, innovative programs.
The gnashing of teeth overlooks an important point: There were very good reasons for the charter laws to be changed. If strengthening oversight results in fewer but more successful charter programs, so be it. The point of having charters is to foster creative approaches that do a better job of educating today's students -- not simply create more failing schools.
Lawmakers passed the changes last year because it became clear that some of the more than 150 charter schools in Minnesota were not well supervised or managed. In fact the new law is based on recommendations made in a legislative auditor's report that found glaring weaknesses in the system. In one astonishing finding, the auditor revealed that a handful of sponsors had almost no contact with their programs after authorizing them. The new legislation more clearly defines sponsor responsibilities and holds them more accountable.
Charters are public schools that receive state funds, have their own boards and operate mostly independently from traditional school districts. The idea is to free them from some state and district requirements to allow new educational concepts to thrive. Though they have that independence, charters must have an oversight organization -- called sponsors under the old law and authorizers under the new law. Now authorizers must go through a longer, more rigorous certification process, and they must monitor their schools more closely.
There are 52 Minnesota sponsoring groups overseeing the schools. Half of the 14 state districts that sponsor charters say they are either thinking about or planning to end that support. St. Paul's superintendent has recommended dropping sponsorship of six schools, though the school board has agreed to continue those ties for at least another year. And the Minnesota Department of Education has notified the seven charters it authorizes to find new sponsors.
However, contrary to some critics of the new law, having fewer state and district sponsored schools doesn't necessarily mean the end of good charter programs. Nonprofits, colleges and universities can also serve as sponsors, providing the schools with other options. Some groups that already oversee charters could add some to their lists, and new sponsors could step forward.
The Legislature clearly needed to strengthen oversight rules to help improve the quality, management and accountability of charters. If that means only the strongest charters will develop and prosper, the state and its students will come out ahead in the long run.