Charter school oversight still a work in progress: Letters show state occasionally intervening to get authorizers to act
ST. PAUL -- Larry McKenzie started his first job overseeing charter schools with a sense of urgency about the achievement gap, “a global crisis.”
A letter arrived just weeks into his tenure at Pillsbury United Communities in 2012. The state was warning him that one of the schools the nonprofit oversees provided only paid full-day kindergarten, not the required free half-day program.
McKenzie saw to it that the school launched a half-day kindergarten. But then came a sharply worded letter from the state: The school wasn’t providing transportation for it.
Minnesota is pressing for more vigilance and action from its 28 charter school authorizers — the nonprofits, colleges or school districts that monitor the independent public schools. That’s since changes in 2009 in the charter law sought to clarify the sometimes murky role of authorizers and to boost oversight.
A review of hundreds of pages of recent letters and emails between authorizers and the state suggests that in some ways, this push remains a work in progress. It can still take a nudge from the state to get authorizers to tackle concerns in their charter schools. The exchanges reviewed involved school board election issues, the reporting of suspected child abuse, financial oversight and more. The proper role of authorizers remains a source of tension.
But actions by authorizers — sometimes without state prodding — have led to sweeping changes: the departures of top administrators, resignations of school board members, policy and curriculum changes, broader use of student data and more.
“I often tell charter directors: ‘We can’t continue to talk about our missions. We have to show results,’ ” McKenzie said.
Across the nation, efforts are underway to strengthen oversight of charters amid rapid growth. Some states and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers have pushed authorizers to close more schools plagued by underwhelming student results and other problems.
Next year, Minnesota will get a more definitive gauge on how much authorizers have stepped up their game when the state starts evaluating them.
Adjusting to oversight
The birthplace of the charter movement, Minnesota wrote the nation’s first charter law more than two decades ago.
Charters would have autonomy from traditional school districts and more leeway to experiment and innovate. But they would answer to an organization, the authorizer, tasked with protecting the public’s interests. That organization would sign off on a new school, monitor its finances and progress toward jointly set goals, and close it if it failed to perform.
By 2009, the consensus was that Minnesota had too many charter monitors, themselves subject to not enough monitoring. Some were way too eager to sign off on new schools — and too reluctant to close ones that did not deliver.
Changes to state law that year required authorizers to reapply for approval. Balking at more time-consuming requirements, 25 organizations pulled out. About 40 percent of those that applied were rejected.
“Some schools had very little oversight and now have had to adjust to a lot more monitoring,” said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. “There’s some pushback and some angst there.”
In previous years, schools could go as long as two years without receiving a visit from Audubon Center of the North Woods staff, said David Greenberg, its authorizing director since 2012. Now, the state’s largest authorizer has urged its charter schools to make smarter use of student data, update policies and include required information such as admission policies on their websites.
Greenberg and other authorizer leaders agree that weak charter school boards are still a trouble spot: Some are still largely recruited by school founders who’ve shaped the charter’s mission. Audubon has pressed boards to be more independent-minded and conduct tougher evaluations of school leaders.
“We’re providing more and higher-quality feedback to our schools,” he said.
Before his first year on the job was up, McKenzie, a former education consultant, closed a school because it fell short of goals. He advocated for launching professional learning communities — teams of teachers and administrators who pore over student results. He made monthly unannounced visits to schools, sitting in on classes and eating lunch with students: “I am in the schools enough that the kids know who I am.”
State gets involved
The state has also pushed authorizers to step up oversight. In response to complaints, the state Department of Education exchanged more than 250 pages of correspondence with authorizers in 2013 and early 2014.
The correspondence involved about 15 of the state’s almost 150 charters. State officials followed up on some issues repeatedly and dispensed pointed reminders about an authorizer’s role. The department has issued only one formal complaint, against the Minneapolis district’s Office of New Schools.
The state has stepped in with concerns about the lack of licensed teachers on school boards, student transcripts and the use of special-education funds.
Lionsgate Academy, a Crystal charter that primarily serves students with autism, revised its admissions policy and received training after the state fielded a parent complaint. The school invites families for a follow-up meeting to assess students’ special needs and shadow a current student. The school says a parent incorrectly assumed the school was balking at enrolling his child.
Novation Education Opportunities, the school’s authorizer, helped clear up the misunderstanding and offered input on how to communicate more clearly with parents.
“Authorizers can be incredibly good mentors to their schools,” said Ali Thorstad, a parent and Lionsgate school board chair.
Last summer, the Education Department called for an investigation into allegations against Mo Chang, founder of St. Paul’s Community School of Excellence, including some about reporting of suspected child abuse. Then, the state demanded a more forceful response to the findings, and authorizer Concordia University urged the school board to fire Chang — which the board has resisted.
Last year, the state also received complaints about Leon Cooper, founder of Minneapolis Academy, one of Minnesota’s highest-performing schools serving primarily low-income students. The state contacted the middle school’s authorizer, Friends of Education.
The resulting outside investigation reported a litany of employee concerns: They said Cooper belittled teachers in front of students and students in front of their parents. They said he cut an intimidating figure walking around the school with a baseball bat and posted teachers’ jobs shortly after they shared concerns.
Most school board members defended Cooper. They noted the school’s healthy finances and academic results, including the coveted “reward school” designation.
Still, Cooper resigned last summer. He says the investigation’s report was unfair because the investigator spoke only with disgruntled teachers, not with parents and students. He says he resigned to focus on another charter he had helped launch.
Friends of Education’s Beth Topoluk says the authorizer does not investigate the kind of verbal or anonymous complaints it received about Cooper. But she prides herself on keeping a close eye on its schools even before the changes in the statute.
Cooper argues that the authorizer was too hands-on, demanding a say in math curriculum and school policies.
“Authorizers are essential,” he said. “But they need to keep their noses out of the schools. Otherwise, they defeat the purpose of charter schools.”
Monitoring, or meddling?
Disagreement persists about where strong monitoring ends and meddling begins. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools has decried authorizer micromanagement and criticized the state for misinterpreting the role of authorizers. For instance, Piccolo says that authorizers do not have the authority to demand leadership changes and that the department has crossed the line in nudging them to do that.
“The job of authorizers is not to tell a school how to run things,” he said. “It’s to hold the school accountable.”
Kevin McHenry, an assistant education commissioner, says the department is simply ensuring authorizers hold their charters to needed changes.
In 2012, Audubon issued a notice of deficiency as “a wake-up call” to Harvest Prep, a high-performing charter in Minneapolis. The authorizer was concerned about the school’s financial oversight and other governance issues.
At the end of that year, the state asked for an update, and a flurry of letters ensued. The department repeatedly raised concerns about the school’s purchasing policy and the busy schedule of founder Eric Mahmoud, who juggles several roles.
When Greenberg brought up the school’s high test scores to suggest Mahmoud’s schedule was not getting in the way, the state shot back: “Please note that it is critical for charter schools to be outstanding not only academically, but fiscally and operationally as well.”
Greenberg says the exchange was difficult, but in all, the school ended up better off for it. After three revisions, the purchasing policy gives the school board more control. The board has brought on new members with a financial background.
Alex Medler of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers says that when authorizers get directly involved in managing a school, they become less likely to take decisive steps when problems persist.
But when authorizers learn of serious problems, they must demand changes, set a timeline — and follow through if change is too slow. That includes closing schools, and the association often reminds members that strong academics alone are not enough when legal violations and safety problems persist.
Overall, he said, Minnesota has made gains in strengthening oversight, but there’s room for improvement.
Other states have also taken a closer look at authorizers and their role recently. A growing number are exploring regular evaluations or pushing for higher standards to renew charter contracts.
States such as Ohio and Florida have passed automatic closure laws that require authorizers to shutter their lowest-performing schools. In Minnesota, a new legislative proposal would require authorizers to do the same — unless they can make a case that these schools serve high-needs students.
The state’s charter association bristles at such laws, arguing that they take away authorizer discretion. The national authorizer association supports them, saying they give authorizers cover to close bad schools.
In all, some of Minnesota’s highest-performing charters say the 2009 changes have struck a reasonable balance.
“It’s a lot of reporting, but we should be held accountable,” said Helen Fisk, director of Global Academy in Columbia Heights. “It’s always good to have another set of eyes on your program.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.