Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Minnesota 2020 Journal: What’s the Right Charter Oversight

February 14, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

I can’t shake the feeling that Minnesota’s charter school movement operates under a different set of expectations from public K12 school expectations. The charter school perspective seems self-determined, self-defined and self-exceptional. A recent legislative proposal, further increasing charter school oversight, reinforces my feeling. More importantly, if Minnesota invests public funds in charter schools, oversight and accountability must increase.

While stronger oversight is critical, I'm not sure how effective this particular legislation will be when it comes to increasing learning and accountability. If passed, the legislation would pressure charter school authorizers to shut down poor performers, or explain why they're keeping the school open.

We must be weary of any accountability metric that is heavily tied to test scores, as it appears this bill will be. Aiming to close schools based on standardized tests will likely hurt charters serving many at-risk children, rather than punish bad actors or stregthen oversight. Relying so heavily on tests will also discourage innovation in favor of test prep just to keep the doors open.

Instead of focusing on shutting schools down based on test scores, legislation should better ensure charter authorizers are more responsive to their schools' needs, and are acting in the best interest of Minnesota's overall education mission.

Charter schools operate outside of traditional public schools' check-and-balance system. Charter school boards are drawn from parent, employed staff and community members. They generally lack the same strict oversight of a regular public school district and its board and aren't directly accountable to local voters for policy and financial decisions.

This particular legislation would do little to bolster such oversight. Nor would it have had an impact on recent developments at the Community School of Excellence, a St Paul-based charter school under increased scrutiny for complaints of fraud and a hostile work environment. CSE’s authorizer, Concordia University of Saint Paul, investigated and reported to the State Department of Education. Unusually, however, MDE informed CUSP that it wasn’t doing enough in its authorizer role. CUSP’s proposed oversight requirements didn’t go far enough. MDE's action came about under new authorizer rules, marking a sea change compared to the hands-off tone of the Pawlenty-era MDE’s charter school oversight.

Minnesota authorized charter schools in 1991, the first state to do so. City Academy High School, a St Paul school serving at-risk high school drop-outs, opened in 1992 as Minnesota’s and the nation’s first charter school. Today, Minnesota has 150 charter schools serving 43,000 students. Comparatively, Minnesota has 785,000 non-charter public school students. Roughly speaking, charter school enrollment represents about five percent of public school students.

Charter schools are similar but they’re very clearly not alike. As University of Minnesota Law School Professor Myron Orfield has noted, charter school enrollment is having the net effect of increasing student racial segregation, reversing forty years of desegration trends in public K12 schooling. This should give us serious pause, particularly because public schools are increasing, rather than decreasing, racial, social and economic diversity.

We regularly take educational risks to try to improve outcomes. Educational research suggests that students with similar cultural backgrounds can learn better in classrooms when grouped with similar students. The same argument applies to gender-segregated schooling although the strongest outcome appears among middle-school aged girls and is less pronounced in high school.

The net effect of racial concentration, structurally reinforced by charter school enrollment geography, is socio-economic concentration. Poverty more than race is a predictor of educational outcome. The hope, explored by charter schools, is crafting curriculum and a supportive learning environment that mitigates increased racial segregation’s negative consequences while building a strong path through poverty’s very real barriers.

Charter schools, as self-described laboratories of learning, embraced this opening. With a persistent “we know better” siren song, charter school advocates requested and received a relatively high degree of operational autonomy. But, after 20 years, insistence isn’t enough.

I’ve always thought of the charter school movement as an expression of the public’s desire for better and stronger public education. I’m uncomfortable with charter school cloak of superiority, an element contributing to calls for greater regulatory oversight.

A few years ago, Minnesota 2020 release reports evaluating charter school audits. Using data from charter schools' own auditors, we noted that four of five charter schools were auditor-flagged for a substantial abrogation of fiscal oversight. We further noted that, as one of five charter schools achieved, responsible compliance was within reach. Rather than accept our suggestions, charter school movement advocates attacked us, calling us school yard bullies.

Minnesota needs greater oversight of charter schools. Test scores don’t tell the whole story. Charter school authorizers must exercise greater oversight. If they’re unwilling or unable, as MDE is currently examining, than authorizers aren’t fit to exercise their considerable power and authority. It shouldn’t take twenty-plus years of charter school experience to create a rising standard of accountability. Minnesota supports public education but Minnesota expects more.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.