« State Accountability for Education | Main | NPR/MPR »

Editorial: Changes for Charter Schools

In 17 years of operation in Minnesota, charter schools have been praised and pilloried. Some reports highlight the schools' academic successes with kids and tout figures that show high levels of family and student satisfaction. Other studies question the charters' effectiveness and say they drain dollars away from traditional public schools.

Yet one area where the studies agree is this: Many charter schools need better oversight and governance.

A smart bill that addresses those concerns and makes welcome, needed changes to charter school law is moving through the Minnesota House. Its major provisions would redefine the roles and responsibilities of charter sponsors, clarify approval and oversight responsibilities and strengthen charter board governance.

Charters are public schools that have their own boards and operate independently of traditional school districts. The idea is to free them from some of the usual state and district requirements to allow creative new educational concepts to thrive.

Under the proposal, charter "sponsors'' would be renamed "authorizers.'' Under current law, sponsors might be the state, school districts, colleges and universities, or nonprofits. Some have closely monitored their schools; others have not.

That would change with the new rules. Authorizers would have to be approved and reviewed regularly by the state. Reporting requirements, board training and stronger rules against conflicts of interest would be enforced.

Many of the bill's provisions follow recommendations made in a legislative auditor report. Based on surveys and site visits, the auditors found that the most effective sponsors are actively involved with the schools but that others had little contact or even knowledge about their programs. The new legislation more clearly defines authorizer responsibilities.

Similar needed provisions are in a Senate bill, but one proposed change in the law could unfairly restrict charter programs. The Senate education committee's plan calls for a 36-month waiting period before a charter could open within one mile of a closed school or in a consolidated district.

Several hundred state schools are expected to close or be involved in consolidations in the next decade due to declining enrollment. Such a restriction would shut charters out of many areas and limit opportunities to use existing school buildings. Those limits could also deprive the state of federal and foundation funding. According to the state Department of Education, Minnesota might have to return over $3.2 million in federal grant money and might miss out on more than $17 million in the next grant cycle.

President Obama, who views charters as among the best incubators for new education ideas, has promised more federal funding for charters and has called on states to lift caps. So as a compromise, the committee included an appeals process: Potential charter operators could apply to the education commissioner for a waiver. Still, the limits are unnecessary.

After nearly a generation of studying Minnesota charter programs, the Legislature is right to reexamine the laws that created them. The best of the pending proposals would strengthen and clarify oversight and operations, while continuing to support flexibility for educational innovation.