The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is trying to become the first teachers union in the country to authorize charter schools.

The union hopes it can help create a network of "guild schools" run by unionized teachers and focused on professional development and effective teaching practices.

"The education system has become very heavy and weighed down, and it sits on the backs of teachers," said Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis union. The guild schools will "maybe have enough flexibility [for teachers] to do what they know is the right thing to be doing for kids right now."

On Saturday, the American Federation of Teachers announced that it is giving the Minneapolis union a one-year, $150,000 "Innovation Fund" grant to help it pursue its goal.

Charter school "authorizers" are organizations that give schools permission to open. Last year, new Minnesota legislation required authorizers to keep closer tabs on charter schools and gave them more power to cut ties with failing schools. To be an authorizer, the union needs approval from the state Department of Education.

As an authorizer, the Minneapolis union couldn't require schools to be unionized, but Nordgren said, "We're hoping the teachers will be unionized, because we think a union of professionals makes a stronger school and a stronger profession."

It could authorize schools in any part of Minnesota, but "we want to stay focused," she said. "We did this to create schools in the metro area, and particularly in Minneapolis."

No current Minnesota charter school has unionized teachers, according to Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union.

'Historic development'

In the almost two decades since the nation's first charter school opened in St. Paul, the Minneapolis School District has lost thousands of children to such schools. Charter schools have marketed themselves as a better option for those who felt their needs weren't met in traditional schools.

But in recent years the district embraced the trend. It created the Office of New Schools to encourage high-quality alternatives, whether they be charter schools, "self-governed" schools, or other options.

Self-governed schools are a new category of public schools in Minnesota. They are run by teachers but still belong to the school district that starts them. The state's first self-governed school, a French immersion school, will open in north Minneapolis in 2011 and will be designed and run by Minneapolis teachers.

In Minnesota, a school's funding is directly dependent on its number of students. That the union's new charter schools would compete directly with the school district for these students doesn't bother Jon Bacal, who heads the district's Office of New Schools.

"There have been concerns about charter schools in the past, and clearly some of those concerns about schools that haven't been as successful are legitimate," said Bacal. "The fact that the union supports high-quality new charter schools is a real historic development."

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, acknowledges that unions are sometimes skeptical of charters, which in Minnesota have a mixed track record.

"We're skeptical of poorly run schools, whether they're charters or not," Dooher said. "But the idea of having teachers in charge of the schools and running the policy is something that we think should be happening anyway. If [the Minneapolis union] believes they have the capacity to authorize and run one, more power to them. I think it will be good for kids in Minneapolis."

Watched closely

The union applied to the state to become an authorizer this spring, to test the waters, Nordgren said. Department of Education officials didn't consider the application because the union didn't have $2 million to ensure that "they'll be around in the future," according to Christine Dufour, a department spokeswoman.

But the union will have two more chances to apply in the next year, and the grant from the American Federation of Teachers is to help the union prepare. It will let the union hire a coordinator, have community meetings if it is approved as an authorizer, and spread the word about its plans and achievements.

The union also must become a 501(c)3 organization and get the financial backing that the state requires, Nordgren said.

"It will be watched closely," said Dooher. "If it seems to be something that can be replicated, other [unions] will take a look at it."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460