Accountability or overregulation? Charter supporters split over Minnesota bill

Part 67 of 67 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson |

Charter school authorizers in Minnesota whose schools fall in the lowest 25 percent of public schools could be required to close those schools or submit an explanation to the state.

SCHOOL’S OUT: A Minnesota bill would increase charter school accountability — but some say it would overregulate schools that need to be independent.

That’s if state Senate Bill 836 passes. Charter school supporters are split over whether the legislation from state Sen. Terri Bonoff would strengthen or weaken charter schools in the state where the movement began.

Increased regulation is unnecessary and could threaten the independence that’s core to charter schools’ identity, said Eugene Piccolo, executive director at the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, and Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform.

“Four years ago we overhauled our charter school law that put in a process for evaluating the performance, Piccolo said. “Why don’t we go through the process one time and see if it works? And if it doesn’t work, let’s tweak it.”

Kerwin’s group ranks Minnesota’s charter school law as the second-best in the country, behind Washington, D.C. The National Association of Public Charter Schools ranks Minnesota’s law as the best in the country.

But Brian Sweeney, director of external affairs for Charter School Partners, said the bill would improve the overall quality of charter schools and make it easier for supporters to defend the charter movement.

“There are those that want to close down all charter schools, and we think it would inoculate the charter sector if we ourselves cleaned up those troubled charter schools,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney and Piccolo both said it was hard to compare charter schools to traditional district schools.

Whether charter schools are better academically is “controversial,” Sweeney said, though he referred to a “Beating the Odds” column in a local newspaper, highlighting the highest-performing schools with at least 85 percent of students living in poverty. A majority of those schools are charters.

Many charter schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area are very high performing, they said, but others don’t do as well.

About 40 percent of charter schools can only be compared to district schools in an apples-to-oranges way, Piccolo said. That’s partially because charter schools serve twice as many English-language learners as district schools, and more than twice the number of students in poverty.

Right now, 17 charter schools are in the lowest 25 percent of Minnesota’s public schools, based on three years of test scores, Sweeney said.

He referred to an uptick in lawsuits in recent years, filed by charter schools against their authorizers when the authorizers decided to close the schools. This could work as a disincentive, making authorizers less inclined to close underperforming schools, he said.

“We think it gives them cover for those authorizers who need more push,” Sweeney said. “Closing down a charter is difficult.”

A 2009 overhaul of the charter law emphasized the authorizer’s role and gave the authorizer more ability to close down an underperforming charter school.

As part of that overhaul, authorizers must lay out their plan for overseeing their schools’ performance, academically and financially. Schools agree to academic goals and financial operations in a contract between the schools and the authorizers.

“Authorizers have different levels of intervention they do before they pull the plug, but (there’s) nothing that says they can’t boot the place. We’ve had a quarter of all charter schools close,” he said.

Charter schools already have much more accountability measures and procedures than district schools, including testing and financial audits, Piccolo said.

Furthermore, the state’s charter law stipulates that “an authorizer may or may not renew a charter school contract at the end of the term and may unilaterally terminate a contract during the term for cause” and that “an authorizer is immune from civil and criminal liability for all activities related to a charter school.”

Threats of lawsuits shouldn’t deter authorizers from closing underperforming schools, Piccolo said.

Under the 2009 law, the state commissioner of education reviews authorizers’ performance every five years, and that first review hasn’t come due yet.

Piccolo said lawmakers should wait to change the process until the state has been through it once.

Bonoff’s office didn’t return a request for comment.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at

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