Teachers at Minnesota charter schools face power struggleState law quirk requires educators to sit on school board
By Erin Carlyle
Published on January 27, 2009 at 12:14pmIn early August, Vincent de Paul McMahon heard a story that roused his ire. Kevin Byrne, executive director of the Minneapolis charter school where McMahon worked, had bullied a school board member, allegedly cornering him and demanding that he resign his board seat. The traumatized man refused and reported the incident to the rest of the board.
A hazardous profession: Vin McMahon, an ESL teacher at a Minneapolis charter school, was chair of the school board. He wanted to make the school financially stable. Instead, he was laid off.
courtesy of Amber Hougo
Charter schools at their best: Amber Hougo's charter school, Minnesota New Country, has helped her excel. Teachers run the school and there is no administrator.McMahon felt it was his duty to confront Byrne. As a teacher at the school's English Language Academy, McMahon was Byrne's employee. But when McMahon acted in his role as school board chair, he was effectively Byrne's boss.
The August 12 meeting started out well, according to McMahon. "I didn't have an ax to grind," McMahon says. "I was just trying to get his side of it." (Byrne declined to comment about the incident.)
Byrne began to criticize McMahon. He said he didn't trust him, and began to recount grudges he'd accumulated against McMahon in the five years they'd worked together.
On August 20, eight days after the meeting with Byrne, McMahon was inside the school board room, passing out paperwork for a critical board meeting that was scheduled to begin in 20 minutes, when Byrne entered the room. He asked McMahon to step into his office.
Byrne sat down behind his large wooden conference table, two security guards at either end of the table. He told McMahon the school was experiencing financial difficulties, and that as a result, the school had decided not to renew his contract. Byrne gave McMahon a termination letter that said he was off the school board.
"I was crushed," McMahon says. "I was blindsided. I didn't see this coming."
McMahon left Byrne's office and walked back to the boardroom. He saw a sign tacked to the door: "Board meeting cancelled."
The events at Minnesota Internship Center's English Language Academy highlight a controversial charter-school law unique to Minnesota: Teachers must serve on the school board. In fact, Minnesota law requires that teachers compose the majority of a charter school board, which is elected by parents, staff, and, in some cases, students. This can put teachers in the awkward position of managing their supervisor—the very individual with power to fire them.
By contrast, traditional district school boards almost never allow school employees to serve on the board. And educators at charter schools are not unionized, which can leave them further exposed to the whims of an administrator.
Last summer, the state Office of the Legislative Auditor outlined a host of potential problems with charter schools, including the requirement that teachers must serve on the board. A special legislative committee is looking at ways to remedy the problem, but it's unclear what direction the Legislature will take. Everything from getting rid of the teacher-majority law to banning new charters has been proposed.
"The structure that the Legislature set up here really requires people to be very secure in themselves and competent," says Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. "There's a case or two every year where it becomes a situation where it gets to a crisis point."
JOE NATHAN WITNESSED the birth of the charter-school movement in Minnesota with the thrilled idealism of a social reformer. In his youth, Nathan had marched in civil rights protests in the South with his mother, who helped found Head Start in Kansas and instilled in her son an indignant sense of justice. He earned a doctorate in education policy and drank at the well of Saul Alinsky, the founder of the modern community-organizing movement whose work influenced Barack Obama.
Now director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, Nathan has made it his life's work to improve schools. In 1970, he helped found and taught at the Open School in St. Paul, one of the state's first nontraditional public schools. As the push for change intensified in the wake of the seminal 1983 Nation at Risk report, which warned of massive failings in the American education system, Nathan was very involved in school reform in Minnesota.
He helped push for legislation that empowered high school students to enroll in college-level courses—Minnesota was the first state with such a law—and made it possible for any student to apply to any public school, regardless of district lines.
"It seemed to many of us that affluent families have always had choice," says Nathan, whose office is littered with books and newspaper clippings documenting the history of education. "There has been a strain in American history about expanding opportunity."
In 1988, the Citizens League, a good-government civic organization, proposed improving public education by removing the districts' monopoly on running public schools. It was thought that increased competition would lead to innovation.
Charters would be publicly funded and open to anyone, but would have a unique focus not available in traditional district schools. They could specialize in a particular subject matter, teaching method, or curriculum.
Nathan and like-minded social reformers like Ted Kolderie, then a fellow at the Humphrey Institute, hoped that chartering could help reduce income- and race-based inequities in public education. They also hoped it would free entrepreneurial-minded teachers from the strictures of the district, empowering them to improve teaching as only a teacher can.
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