As interest in the independently run but publicly funded schools explodes, so does legislators' desire to monitor them more closely.
Charter schools were a key part of Minnesota's trendsetting school-change innovations of decades past. Now, they are headed for some changes of their own.
They are likely to emerge from this year's legislative session more closely monitored to prevent financial abuses and oversights. The reforms could include higher standards for charter school sponsors, changes in rules about school facilities and more training requirements for board members.
All in all, the schools could see the most changes of any year since legislators wrote them into existence in 1991. And many charter school advocates say they're ready and willing.
"This year, we're going for the enchilada," said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. Piccolo's group is among a handful of players -- including legislators and the state Department of Education -- that are coming up with plans to clean up the mess. It could also be welcome news for those successful charter schools tarred by the same brush as the ones that fail.
"It has been distressing to see the problems that are plaguing some of the other schools, and how those problems can reflect on the good schools," said Mary Hall, parent of a fifth-grader at Paideia Academy, an Apple Valley charter school that focuses on classical education and calls itself "a public school with a private school feeling."
Interest in the schools is surging, with state charter school enrollment doubling in the past five years to 28,000 last year. But the success has brought growing pains, with some schools troubled by subpar student performance, shoddy fiscal management and conflicts of interest in school governance. Add a $4.8 billion state shortfall to the mix, and legislators are hungry for reform.
Money is 'toughest thing'
Charter schools are publicly funded, but they are run by independent boards and "sponsored" by school districts, colleges or nonprofits. They often base their curriculum on a particular theme valued by the sponsor or parents, such as language immersion or environmental education.
Some aren't prepared for all that's involved in running a school. Tony Scallon, superintendent of Minnesota Transitions Charter Schools, said charter school boards and administrators sometimes run into problems with the financial aspects.
"The toughest thing is always the financial accountability," said Scallon, whose 12-year-old operation runs nine programs at six sites in Minneapolis and St. Paul. "Everyone knows what their dream is. But the first thing you have to do is provide lunch for the kids, transportation to get them there and a building. ... It's a matter of knowing how to do the fiscal management. Not honesty or dishonesty, but overspending in your building."
Minnesota was the first state to enact charter school legislation, followed closely by California, Massachusetts and Colorado.
The state's charter movement has seen a few high-profile failures and flimflam operations, including recent cases that legislators say have spurred them this session.
But success stories exist, too, and charters have spread to the Twin Cities suburbs, offering an alternative to more traditional public schools. The state now has 153 charter schools.
Forty states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools. Growth in other states and cities has been more explosive: With 3 percent of students in charters, Minnesota ranks 14th in the nation, while Arizona leads with 9 percent.
Nationwide, the charter school industry has had its problems. Joe Nathan, an instrumental figure in Minnesota's charter school growth and director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, said the center has been asked to work with several states, including Arizona, to tighten up their charter school regulations.
In Minnesota, changing the rules about sponsors is a key point. A 2008 legislative auditor's report said the state should increase the authority of charter school sponsors and require the state to approve them.
Now, "the threshold to become a sponsor is not very high," said Chas Anderson, state Education Department deputy commissioner. Some sponsors monitor school finances and decisionmaking closely, but others rarely check in, she said.
The department's power to withdraw public money from a school that is breaking the law varies depending on the offense, Anderson said. Shutting down a troubled school is a lengthy undertaking if the sponsor won't act, and the state has initiated the process only once in her memory.
The department wants to approve sponsors, review them every five years and gain more authority to close charter schools.
Some charter school advocates stress that sponsors should get more funding to monitor charter schools if they're held to a higher standard. Others question the wisdom of giving more power to sponsors with uneven track records. "Where is the public oversight?" asked Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, who leads a Senate working group on charter schools.
Legislators also are taking a hard look at a law that bars charter schools from owning buildings. Instead, they get state money to lease space. But some charters are getting around the rule by forming holding companies to buy facilities with the money, Anderson said. Other controversial ideas include a call to require charter school administrators to be licensed like mainstream school principals and one to have a district school board approve a charter's curriculum, budget and administrative contracts.
Two state proposals deal with religion, Anderson said. One would bar a house of worship from sponsoring a charter school (none does now). Another would require charter schools to follow a state law that currently applies to district schools, which allows students to attend limited religious instruction but only if it's off campus.
Saltzman and Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, have called for a two-year moratorium on new charter schools while the system is fixed, a move that many charter school advocates and the state oppose. "It does nothing to address the quality of charter schools that are out there," Anderson said.
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