Two years after it made news as the nation’s first union-backed charter school authorizer, an effort launched under the wing of the Minneapolis teachers union has yet to open any charter schools.

The three other similar new single-purpose charter authorizers in Minnesota have authorized a total of seven charter schools, all of which have opened.

When the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools won state approval as an authorizer in late 2011, it outlined a faster timetable for opening schools.

Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, set a target of opening six schools by the current school year. The guild’s authorizer application laid out an even more ambitious schedule of authorizing up to 35 schools in its first five years.

But reality has been much different.

The Minnesota Department of Education has approved a charter contract for just one guild-authorized school, which means it has a shot at meeting its goal of opening next school year. Arts and Science Academy would be an Isanti County kindergarten-through-eighth grade school.

Four other guild-backed charters — three in Minneapolis and one in Rochester — are in earlier stages of the charter approval process.

Some reacted to the news that a union wanted to sponsor charter schools with bewilderment, given that teachers unions have been skeptical about the soundness of charters. But union leaders such as Nordgren point to a former American Federation of Teachers leader who proposed charter-like schools long before Minnesota’s first charter school opened.

The national federation gave the guild a grant for start-up funding; ongoing funding will come from fees charged to schools it authorizes, which get their money from the state.

One culprit in the delay is timing. The Legislature allowed a new type of authorizer when it rewrote the state’s chartering law in 2009. That was a single-purpose authorizer, which unlike colleges or school districts, is only in the business of authorizing charter schools. But legislators said only three such authorizers could be approved by the state, a cap not lifted until 2011, and the guild was the last of four single-purpose authorizers to finish the state process.

That meant that the guild missed a chance to compete for charter schools that were looking for new authorizers. That was happening because the 2009 law also increased requirements on authorizers, formerly known as sponsors. Some decided to stop sponsoring schools and others didn’t meet state requirements.

The three other single-purpose authorizers took on 25 schools that switched from other sponsors.

Yet the guild’s slow track record is ironic, given that Nordgren wrote two years ago that the guild’s goal was to accelerate the oft-delayed process of opening schools that aim to close the achievement gap.”

She said recently that the application process is taking a long time for charter school applicants, many of whom have full-time day jobs as educators.

“They came with an idea, and they didn’t have it fleshed out,” she said.

Louise Sundin, guild board chairwoman, said the guild’s goal is to open schools with innovative leadership models or curriculum. She’s a former Minneapolis teachers union president.


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