The reins get tighter for Minnesota charter schools

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2011 - 4:07 PM

New regulations aim to clean up sloppy operations at some specialty schools.

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First-graders Elizabeth Kerkvlet, 7, left, and JunFen Freihammer, 7, shouted what they were selling during a mock supermarket at Yinghua Academy, a Chinese immersion charter school in St. Paul.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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The case of a Minneapolis charter school whose former director allegedly embezzled nearly $1.4 million is just one example of the problems lawmakers hope to squelch with new rules about how charter schools are overseen.

As the schools reach new heights of popularity in Minnesota, they'll also find themselves under closer scrutiny, thanks to the biggest overhaul in the way the schools are regulated since the state became the first to pass a charter school law in 1991.

Legislative changes affecting the special breed of public schools will increase oversight, close loopholes and clean up unclear language that had made it easier for some schools to get away with sloppy management or outright theft. Charter school sponsors will have stricter guidelines -- which could drive some away -- and the state will have more power to withhold taxpayer money or to shut down a school that breaks the law.

"If these laws are working, then we'll stop seeing these stories in the news," said Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Finance Division.

More changes are needed, said some education leaders, including Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. The new rules will likely prevent the most obvious abuses, he said, but "we're going to have to work on this law at least one more time."

Still, he said, the reforms are a big step forward, and many charter school advocates agree. "Those of us that are doing the right thing won't be burned by the folks that aren't," said Betsy Lueth, director of Yinghua Academy, a K-5 charter school in St. Paul.

Enrollment at Yinghua, a Chinese immersion school, has ballooned from 70 to 240 since the academy opened three years ago, Lueth said. It's a surge that illustrates growing interest in charter schools, statewide and nationally. In Minnesota, charter school enrollment has more than tripled since 2000, to nearly 33,000 this school year -- 4 percent of public school students. The state now has about 150 charter schools with 50 overseeing sponsors (called "authorizers"), which can be school districts, colleges or nonprofits.

Charter schools, designed as breeding grounds of teaching innovation, are publicly funded but run by independent boards and exempt from many laws governing regular schools. They often specialize in a theme valued by authorizers or parents, such as science or performing arts, and some have had great success.

Others have struggled with poor student test scores, shoddy fiscal management or legal violations. On Monday, for example, former school executive director Joel Pourier appeared in court on charges of embezzling $1.38 million from the Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth Charter School, which closed last summer.

The changes in regulation include new training requirements for charter school board members, tougher rules against conflicts of interest and an outline of the circumstances in which a charter school may form a building corporation to buy or build -- rather than lease -- a facility.

One key question lawmakers sought to clarify was who should carry the biggest burden when it comes to monitoring individual schools: the state or authorizers. "One of the big glitches was that the state -- the Department of Education -- wasn't able to dog and track all these charter schools," Greiling said,

Some authorizers have gone "above and beyond the law" watching over the finances and operation of their charter schools, but others rarely even visit schools, said Chas Anderson, state Education Department deputy commissioner. "Without a strong authorizer, it's really hit or miss whether a charter school is going to be successful."

New rules require authorizers to keep closer tabs on charter schools and give them more power to cut ties with a failing school. "Now we have clarified that authorizers have ongoing and significant responsibilities. They can't just sign their name and move on," Greiling said.

The regulations also ban sectarian groups from authorizing schools, though two that already exist -- Volunteers of America and the Minneapolis YMCA -- are grandfathered in, Anderson said. A third, she said, is Islamic Relief USA, which sponsors Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, the Inver Grove Heights charter school that is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota for allegedly crossing the line between public schools and religion. Islamic Relief, based in California, does not qualify under a new rule that requires authorizers to be incorporated in Minnesota, Anderson said.

Current authorizers have until summer 2011 to get state approval to continue their relationships with charter schools, and experts expect some authorizers to drop out because they can't or don't want to take on the extra work. The changes call for the appointment of up to three new authorizers that do nothing but oversee charter schools, and some schools may turn to those groups.

Some ideas supported by mainstream school leaders didn't make it through the Legislature. Kyte said he would have liked to see the pool of authorizers narrowed further, to just a few that are truly expert at running schools. Many also wanted stronger measures preventing a charter school from opening nearby right after a district closes a school.

Some groups, such as Minnesota 2020, say the changes need to go much further. On Tuesday, the public policy think tank issued a report saying that 80 percent of charter schools in the state had at least one financial irregularity on 2007 audits, and half the schools with problems did not correct them in the next year.

The think tank, founded by DFLer Matt Entenza, who plans to run for governor, did not look at school district audits to see how they compared. That gap in the report surprised Morgan Brown, state Education Department assistant commissioner, who said audit findings -- which range widely in seriousness -- are common for both charter schools and districts.

A report last year from the legislative auditor's office said that, as a group, Minnesota charter schools were about as healthy financially as districts. This year, a third of Minnesota charter schools received state awards for their financial health and reporting, compared to 19 percent of school districts, Brown said.

Criticism about charter schools isn't all about money management. The schools haven't lived up to their promise of increasing student achievement and should be held to the same standards that traditional schools are, argued Tom Dooher, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union. In light of the economic straits that led legislators to freeze K-12 funding, he's irked at one $2.5 million line item that passed. "It's hard to understand why the Legislature would put more money into charter school start-ups," he said.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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