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First Reading: One school doesn’t fit all

Published (4/10/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Students pay attention in class at Laura Jeffery Academy, a new year-round charter school for girls in grades five-eight in St. Paul. It’s expected to enroll up to 200 students by fall of 2010. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Former Rep. Becky Kelso co-owns a cozy Shakopee quilt shop where people who love to piece things together stock up on fabric and supplies to make something in their mind’s eye real: an heirloom bed covering, a warm jacket, a decorative wall hanging.

She’s far from her old legislative life these days, but nearly two decades ago Kelso was on the cutting edge of public education when she helped craft a 1991 law that began the nation’s charter school movement. She said that movement was twofold: giving students and parents choices within the public school system, and as a laboratory for innovative curriculum or teaching methods.

“My feel is the passage of charter schools was a sign of the times,” Kelso said recently. “It was part of a progression in the state.”

Nation-leading in school choice

Minnesota was already ahead of the curve in school choice, having implemented alternative learning centers, open enrollment and post-secondary enrollment options that had become law during the 1980s, as well as home schooling and education tax credits.

“To a certain degree, I think there was a pride in Minnesota that we were leading the country at that time in public school innovation,” Kelso said. “In other words, I don’t think charter schools could have passed before open enrollment, before PSEO. There was just a feeling that Minnesota is confident and strong enough in our public school system that we can take some chances that other states couldn’t.”

Charter schools are now integral pieces in the patchwork of public K-12 education. From the original eight schools authorized to open in 1991; Minnesota now has 153 charter schools enrolling more than 32,000 students. They include schools focused on language immersion, Montessori, environmental education, performing arts and the needs of chemically dependent students.

The smallest, Minnesota North Star Academy, a bilingual American Sign Language and English school, has just 28 students. The largest, Minnesota Transitions School, has 1,263 students at several sites. The first to open in 1992 was City Academy, which still serves high school students who have dropped out or are poised to drop out of conventional schools. One of the newest is Laura Jeffrey Academy, an all-girls middle school named for one of the first black librarians in St. Paul.

Several bills regarding charter schools this session hope to address accountabilty issues raised in a recent auditor’s report. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)For all their promise, charter schools’ weaknesses were highlighted in a 2008 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor. They include some sponsors’ governance and oversight and some schools’ lackluster academic results.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Linda Slocum (DFL-Richfield) would mend some of the charter system’s frayed edges. The House K-12 Education Finance Division laid HF935 over March 10 for possible inclusion in its omnibus bill. Its companion, SF867, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury), awaits action by the Senate E-12 Education Budget and Policy Division.

How the bill would help schools

The bill clarifies and strengthens sponsors’ authority for charter school performance and management. In fact, they would be called authorizers rather than sponsors.

“That’s not just semantics, it’s a very clear message,” said Minnesota Charter Schools Association Executive Director Eugene Piccolo. “‘Sponsor’ has a connotation of your buddy, your friend, your guide. ‘Authorizer’ has ability to approve you, to oversee you and to close you.”

The OLA report found that while some sponsors are diligent, attending charter board meetings regularly and reviewing standardized test scores and financial statements, others never do any of these tasks. One sponsor said she did not know the school she helped sponsor had not made Adequate Yearly Progress. AYP is a measurement of the standards-based proficiency of a school’s students.

Under the bill, authorizers would collect higher fees from their charter schools for their oversight work. Some sponsors told the legislative auditor that more compensation would allow them to devote more time to their sponsorship duties.

The bill would also require charter boards to be trained, and licensed teachers would no longer be required to be the majority of a board, though they would still comprise 20 percent of its members.

Winona’s Bluffview Montessori School was the first to sign its charter after the 1991 law passed, though it took another year and a half to begin its conversion from private tuition-based school to charter. And, it has taken until recently for teachers to get comfortable with their governance responsibilities.

“Because we started as a private school where parents were the primary control, then went into a charter where by definition the teachers were in primary control, that resulted in some struggles unique to the three or four or five early charters,” Director of Operations Les Hittner said.

“There were no models, no mentors,” Hittner said, but since the current board chair insists on board training for every member, “we now have one of the best boards I’ve ever worked with.”

Other provisions in the bill include:

• sectarian organizations would not be allowed to sponsor charter schools;

• all eligible charitable organizations that sponsor charters here would have to be based in Minnesota; and

• it adds pupil achievement to the list of purposes for chartering a school.

Although charter schools are usually smaller than district sites, have lower student-to-teacher ratios and offer lots of personal attention, they have not produced remarkable academic results in general. With some exceptions, the OLA report found academic performance at charter schools lower than comparable district schools, but the differences diminished when adjusted for factors such as poverty and high student mobility.

Piccolo said it’s possible some sponsors could drop out of the business and even that some charter schools could close because of the changes, but overall, the bill would strengthen the chartering system by giving “clear authority to sponsors to hold schools accountable.”

Competitors or collaborators?

Despite the proposed changes, some education veterans remain skeptical of the claim that charter schools make a substantial difference in education, and fear they’re sometimes perceived as a way to fill a vacuum created when district schools close. They’re also concerned for teachers who lose their union rights and pay by moving to charter schools not participating in collective bargaining agreements.

Longtime Minneapolis Federation of Teachers advocate Rose Hermanson was the union’s point person opposing the original charter law. She remains lukewarm about charter schools because they haven’t truly fulfilled their original vision to empower teachers to innovate by freeing them from mandates and district rules, especially to reach students who weren’t being served by conventional schools.

“It was all built around taking down rigid walls around who was running the shop,” Hermanson recently said, but “charters have evolved into business models” and “for the most part, they aren’t about innovation.”

Hermanson’s union looks more favorably on another bill, HF751, sponsored by Rep. John Benson (DFL-Minnetonka) that would allow groups of teachers along with parents to create site-governed schools within districts. Like charters, they’d be incubators of innovation. Unlike charters, they’d be more nimble to operate, requiring school board approval but not outside authorization, and would serve students already in the community rather than draw them from all over. Furthermore, teachers would retain district employment and union benefits.

Slocum is also a longtime union member and steward at Field Community School in Minneapolis, where she teaches seventh and eighth grade English and social studies.

“I believe in unions, but also believe in creativity in education,” Slocum said. “Kids aren’t all the same; they don’t all learn the same. My bottom line is what is best for the child and the child’s family.

“Whether someone hates charters or loves them they’re not going away, therefore, wouldn’t it make some sense to make them more responsive and more responsible and better in our communities?”

Hittner takes a sanguine view of school competition.

“If you look at public schools as a team, then the public school systems can be very competitive in the educational marketplace, but each member of the team has a role to play. In that respect, the students win, the republic wins, the people win, when we think what’s best for the children, and not what’s best for any one player on this team. We win the game as a system of public education, all of us together.”

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