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A Brief Lesson in Charter School History

A brief lesson in charter school history
The context, rationale and evolution of the Minnesota charter school law

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Minnesota’s school choice initiatives were born of the notion that public education should not be the exclusive domain of a government-sponsored monopoly. To withdraw what Minnesota charter pioneer Ted Kolderie dubbed the “exclusive franchise” school districts have historically held on public schools, two important opportunities were needed.

First, individuals and communities must have the right to start and run new public schools outside the traditional district framework.

And, second, parents need the right to choose the public school their students attend, with the money generated by those students following them to whatever public school they choose.

For more on Kolderie’s contributions to the thinking behind charters and other education reform ideas, click here for more information on his new book, “Creating the Capacity for Change.”

This emphasis on creating new schools and additional school choices has gained even greater emphasis in recent years in this public interest rationale offered by charter supporters. They include education reformers like Joe Graba, a former Minnesota teachers union leader and Democratic state legislator. Graba makes a strong case that the degree of improvement now being demanded of public education can’t be achieved by relying only on changing the schools we now have. To meet those needs, Graba argues, many more and substantially different schools must also be created new. For a more detailed explanation of Graba’s thinking, click here.

Public school choice

Charter schools in Minnesota are considered one of a number of strategies — put in place by state policymakers over two decades — to expand public school choices for students, parents and teachers and to broaden the state’s definition of “public education.”

Ahead of passage of Minnesota’s pioneering charter law, Minnesota’s legislature first enacted the Post-Secondary Education Options program in 1985 that allows high school juniors and seniors to attend college at state expense. In 1988, the legislature authorized the nation’s first state-wide inter-district open enrollment which was phased-in for all school districts in 1989 and 1990.

Minnesota students may also choose from a number of contract, alternative and second-chance schools and programs run outside traditional district control that were authorized beginning in the mid-1970s and significantly expanded in the late 1980s. More than 180,000 students attend these alternative programs at any given point in time — or about 21.5 percent of the state’s public school enrollment.

Particularly in Minneapolis and St. Paul — originally in response to desegregation court orders — students have also been offered numerous magnet, emersion and other voluntary choices, both within their districts and in several, newly created inter-district schools. More recently, settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Minneapolis NAACP chapter against the Minneapolis School District and the state has created new opportunities for more than a thousand Minneapolis students of color to attend suburban public schools.

For more on Minnesota’s broadening definition of “public education,” click here.

Origins with Al Shanker and a Citizens League Committee

Minnesota’s pioneer charter law traces its origins to the 1988 Itasca Seminar, organized by the Minneapolis Foundation, that brought together key business leaders, educators and policy makers to explore ways of improving the state’s public schools. One of the speakers was the late Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker repeated the proposal he had made to the National Press Club in Washington earlier that year, that groups of teachers be given the opportunity to start and run what he called “charter schools.” Sy Fliegel, another speaker, also discussed his work in East Harlem where dramatic improvements occurred when students were allowed to choose schools that were smaller and more autonomous.

Members of a Citizens League Committee were in the audience who, already aware of Shanker’s proposal, had been working through the summer on the outline of a charter school proposal. Also present were State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge and State Representative Ken Nelson, who had previously authored Minnesota’s inter-district open enrollment law. The Citizens League report appeared later that year, and was picked up in a bill introduced by Reichgott Junge and Nelson in the 1989 Minnesota Legislature.

Though the charter school bill passed the Senate as part of the omnibus education bill in 1989, 1990 and 1991, it could not gain sufficient votes to pass the state House of Representatives. Finally, in 1991, a House-Senate conference committee reached agreement on a much-weakened compromise. And, after surviving a House floor fight by just one vote, the nation’s first charter school law was adopted as part of a larger omnibus education bill and then signed into law by Governor Arne Carlson.

A mere shadow of its future self

Minnesota’s initial charter law had some strong elements and several critical flaws. Its chief assets were its degree of freedom from state laws and regulations and the schools’ relative autonomy from districts. Each school was to be treated as an independent Local Education Agency (LEA), hiring its own teachers and having total control of its funds, which were to flow directly from the state.

To gain sufficient House support, however, three critical compromises were made in the legislative conference committee: Only local school districts could grant charters, only eight charters could granted anywhere in the state and the governing board of each school had to consist of a majority of licensed teachers working in that school.

This latter provision is unique in the country. And, although originally an unsuccessful effort to quell teachers union opposition, it has helped create new opportunities for leadership and new management models involving teachers in a number of Minnesota charter schools. In more recent years, however, it has also come under criticism as a limiting factor in creating the kind of strong and diverse governing boards that any healthy non-profit organization requires.

The limitations on sponsorship and the eight school cap were particularly discouraging. But, charter supporters immediately went to work developing school proposals. The first approved was Bluffview Montessori in Winona in December, 1991. And the first opened was City Academy in St. Paul in the fall of 1992. Other charters were soon approved in rural St. Louis County, Stillwater and Minneapolis. During the first year, district boards also denied charter proposals in Northfield and St. Cloud.

A continuous stream of improvements in the law began almost immediately

The volume of early interest and district opposition led to two important changes in the 1993 Legislature: An increase in the limit on charters to 20 and an opportunity to appeal district decisions to deny charter proposals to the state board of education, if two local board members support the proposal. If approved on appeal, the state board then became the chartering authority. The 1993 legislature also allowed conversion of existing district schools to charters, if 90 percent of the teachers agreed.

Local school districts and the State Board of Education approved an initial round of charter approvals and openings in the first several years after the law took effect. By 1995, however, it was becoming clear that additional changes in the law and expanded start-up and other technical assistance were both needed if Minnesota’s charter schools were to be more than an interesting side show in Minnesota’s broader strategies for school change and improvement.

In response, charter pioneer Ted Kolderie and others convened a meeting of about 50 state charter supporters in December of 1996. Also invited were charter school advocates from four other states: Howard Fuller (Wisconsin), Eric Premack (California), Linda Brown (Massachusetts) and Ken Campbell (Washington, D.C.).

These four charter advocates described so-called non-governmental “charter friends” organizations they had helped establish in their respective states to provide technical assistance, advocacy and other support for charter schools and their state’s charter law.

This meeting represented a significant turning point — and a realization that Minnesota’s charter school movement needed to strengthen its law and significantly expand its technical assistance and advocacy capacity — in effect learning lessons from other states that had followed Minnesota’s lead in passing the nation’s first charter school law. The response was a second major wave of changes and improvements in the charter law and significant expansion in technical assistance capacity — initially through expansion of Minnesota Association of Charter Schools and Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, but later through a number of other organizations, as well.

On the legislative front, key supporters like Senator Ember Reichgott Junge and Governor Arne Carlson gave new leadership to what has become a pattern of continuous evaluation, change and overall improvement in Minnesota’s charter law over time. The most important changes have included:

  • A gradual increase (to 20 then 35 then 40) and, in 1997, elimination of the statutory cap on the number of charters that could be granted.
  • Significant expansion in charter sponsors, adding the state board of education on appeal (1993), public post secondary institutions (1995), private colleges and universities (1997), intermediate school districts (1998) and larger non-profit organizations and foundations (2000). The previous requirement for two affirmative votes on the district board — to be able to appeal to the state board — was also removed. For more on Minnesota’s non-profit and higher ed sponsors, click here. And, for a complete list of all Minnesota charter school sponsors, click here.
  • Significant efforts to provide funding equity for charters relative to district schools, by adding transportation revenue (1995), extra aid for low income students (1996), Mper pupil facilities and start-up aid (1997 with increases in subsequent years) and some integration aid and voter-approved revenues (1999). The total appropriation for Minnesota’s lease aid program for Fiscal Year 2004 is about $17.1 million, rising to $21.0 million in FY 2005. This pioneering program provides schools up to $1,200 per student per year to cover up to 90 percent of their eligible lease expenses. Overall, charter schools in Minnesota are receiving an estimated $120.0 million in the 2003-04 school year in a combination of local, state and federal revenues — or an average of about $8,500 per student — for planning, start-up, operations and facilities. For more on Minnesota’s pioneering lease aid program, click here.
  • Additional flexibility in governance, by allowing a state waiver of the teacher majority requirement for charter boards (1999) and increased opportunities for existing schools to convert to charter status by dropping the teacher approval requirement from 90 to 60 percent (1999).

While most of the changes in Minnesota’s charter law have been positive, the state’s charter advocates have also had to be on constant guard against efforts by opponents to weaken the legislation and curtail growth in the number of schools and overall enrollment.

In both 1997 and 1998, for example, the State House of Representatives approved legislation prohibiting or limiting contracts with for-profit management companies. However, the State Senate and Governor Arne Carlson forced the House to back down in conference committee. Three years later, tough negotiating produced acceptable compromises on efforts to add new and more prescriptive reporting and other oversight and accountability requirements to the law.

More recently, charter advocates had to rally their forces in 2003 to beat back an attempt in the State Senate to impose a multi-year moratorium on new charter development. Also in 2003, and in the face of a $4.2 billion state deficit, charters had to accept cuts in state building lease aid and suspension of state start-up aid for at least two years.

To view a summary of these changes in the Minnesota charter school law — and corresponding increases in the number of charter schools, click here.

Closures have occurred mainly because of governance and management issues

In addition to the 103 Minnesota charter schools now open, 20 have been closed. This represents 16.1 percent of the 124 charters that have opened since 1991. Three other charters have been approved, but never opened. About a third of the schools that have been closed did so voluntarily, while the others were closed by their sponsors during or at the end of what are up to three-year terms. In most cases, the closures were due to administrative, governance or financial problems, although academic shortcomings were often just below the surface. To view a complete list of closed or never opened schools,

click here.The pace of closures has dropped significantly in the last three years after a peak of 12 closures in 2000 and 2001. That led to no net growth in the number of charters operating that year. The string of closures also raised serious concerns in the legislature and elsewhere about the capacity of charter schools to competently manage their affairs.

One outcome of that concern has been increase technical assistance and management training for charter developers and operators. Another has been closer scrutiny of school finances, governance and administration by charter school sponsors. One indicator of the impact of these initiatives is that the number of charter schools in what state law defines as “Statutory Operating Debt” has declined from 20 charter schools in 2001 to seven charters in 2002 to just two charter schools in 2003.

It should also be noted that the state’s charter school leadership — particularly the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools — has supported virtually all of the closure decisions and has worked closely with both the boards of the schools and the sponsors to ensure the smoothest possible transition of students, staff and programs to other educational settings.

In recent years, there’s also been a modest trend toward changing sponsors from one organization to another — when a sponsor is no longer interested in performing its duties, or the school wishes to affiliate with an organization it feels will better support its mission. Overall, eleven such switches in sponsorship have now occurred, with more likely this spring and summer. These changes must be approved by the State Department of Education. This year, the State Department itself was forced to assume sponsorship for several schools whose sponsors did not wish to continue in that role. This role for the state is intended to be temporary, although the State Department is also the permanent sponsor for nine charters it has granted on appeal.

Law has been strengthened and defended despite status quo opposition

Minnesota’s mainline education interest groups — the teachers unions, schools boards and administrators associations — opposed adoption of Minnesota’s charter law in 1991 and have opposed its strengthening over time. They have acted largely behind the scenes, however, and without the kind of high profile killer amendments, lawsuits, targeting of pro-charter legislators in the media and campaigns and other similar tactics that have been used by charter opponents in other states.

When they do testify in the legislature, opposition lobbyists generally begin their statements with, “We support charter schools, but…” They then go on to urge caution in further expanding the number of charters in the absence of more substantial evidence of their success.

The main concerns raised by charter opponents, of course, continue to revolve around the movement of money that follows students from one school choice to another. This is a disruptive thing to districts and, understandably, something they rather not have to plan for and deal with.

But, because chartering has been done in Minnesota in the context of broader public school choice options, it has become increasingly difficult for districts to make the case that money shouldn’t be following student choices. Districts have created dozens of alternative programs for students who are not succeeding in traditional district schools.

Districts themselves are now also aggressively recruiting students from each other under the state’s inter-district open enrollment program. A growing number of them are offering on-line learning options that can enroll students statewide. And, as noted above almost ten percent of Minnesota school districts — enrolling about 30 percent of the state’s public school students — have now granted charters themselves. For more on the growing interest in chartering by districts, click here.

Implications of the evolution of Minnesota’s law for other states

Over the last 13 years, Minnesota has both inspired and benefited from policy development around charters in other states. Of course, 39 states and the Congress, legislating for the District of Columbia, have now followed Minnesota’s initial leadership by enacting charter laws of their own. But, Minnesota has also borrowed heavily from more recently enacted state laws in making several of the changes outlined above — including California’s conversion provisions, university sponsorship in Michigan and Colorado’s state board appeal option.

One important tactical lesson from Minnesota may be the potential for strengthening a state’s charter law over time. Charter advocates in states initially passing laws often have to make a hard choice between accepting a relatively weak law or postponing their fight for another day.

In Minnesota, a law with serious weaknesses has been incrementally strengthened over time — as the constituency for the idea has grown and made itself felt in the legislative process, as hard evidence of problems with certain provisions of the law has emerged and as myths and concerns raised earlier have been dispelled.

It has generally helped the charter cause that the strengthening amendments have been included in the annual “omnibus” education bills that get put together in conference committees. This makes it more difficult for interest groups to urge legislators to vote “no” on final floor passage since they would also be putting at risk funding and other provisions they support.

Every state is different, but Minnesota may be demonstrating that the charter idea is powerful enough to help sell itself over time, if given the opportunity. Minnesota’s experience also provides hope that policy development around charters can be self-improving — given vigilance of an active and growing volume of stakeholder and political support.