One-third of state's authorizers are getting out of charter school business

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
December 1, 2010


St. Paul, Minn. — Dozens of charter schools in Minnesota are looking for new homes. Not physical homes, but homes with an 'authorizer.'

Having an authorizer, or sponsor, had been an almost mundane requirement for charter schools -- until this year, when the state started implementing a new law designed to make authorizers more accountable.

Since the law took effect, several authorizers have decided to get out of the charter business.

Authorizers don't run charter schools, but by law, charter schools have always needed an authorizer to open. Prompted in part by reports of fiscal mismanagement by some charter school administrators, the new law makes authorizers more accountable for the financial and academic performance of their schools.

Advocates widely praised the changes when passed, but many say they've since been surprised that the law has led many authorizers to end their relationships with charter schools.

"I don't think that when the law was passed, they had anticipated that the timing would be as bad as it's been," said Karen Rusthoven, executive director of Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul.

Community of Peace is authorized by the St. Paul School District. The district authorizes five other charter schools and also sponsored the nation's first-ever charter school, which opened in 1992.

But after nearly 20 years, St. Paul won't be an authorizer after this school year. Chief accountability officer Michelle Walker said the district doesn't have the manpower needed to comply with the new law.

"We'd have to have clearly-dedicated staff or staff that could dedicate a significant amount of time to do that," Walker said. "We did not have that kind of infrastructure in our district and did not see a way, given all the cuts we'll have to make and all the changes we'll have to make, that we could do that effectively."

Every current authorizer must re-apply to stay an authorizer. That will let the state re-screen everyone already in the game to make sure they can handle the new responsibilities. Some applicants have been learning this week whether they've been approved. In the first round of applications, the state rejected more applications than approved.

The larger surprise for some advocates has been how many authorizers aren't even applying. More than a third of the state's 45 current authorizers say they're getting out.

Those departing authorizers include colleges and traditional public school districts that have been sponsors for years, including Hamline University, Century College and the Stillwater, Hopkins, Brooklyn Center, and Le Sueur-Henderson school districts. That has some advocates wondering what Minnesota's charter school system will look like after those organizations - some who have been involved with charter schools since the early days - are gone.)

The Winona school district authorizes two charter schools: Bluffview Montessori and Ridgeway Community School. Superintendent Scott Hannon said he will apply to keep being an authorizer, but he adds he's ready to walk away if his application is rejected.

"I just think it's another example of the state going hells bells for leather in wanting to control something," Hannon said. "How many hoops do we have to jump through for this stuff? It's just a frustrating deal."

At this point, 35 charter schools (out of 147 statewide) must find new authorizers for next year, a number that could increase depending on who does or doesn't get the new state approval. Leaders of several of those schools say they've spoken with potential new authorizers, but nothing is set at this point because they're waiting to see if their new authorizer is approved.

Schools without an authorizer next summer must close, regardless of academic performance. That upsets Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools.

"The goal of changing the law in terms of authorizers was to improve the oversight, to raise accountability," Piccolo said. "It was not designed that we'll have schools close just because they can't get through the process fast enough."

Piccolo's group plans to ask lawmakers to approve an extension next year so schools losing their authorizer don't automatically have to close.

State officials have defended the process, saying it's become a national model for authorizer oversight and that it's too early to panic about closings. They say more authorizers will be approved in coming months, which will give schools more chances to find a new partner. The pool also includes new authorizers that have never sponsored charter schools.