In 2009, the Minnesota charter school law was re-written and a major change in that law was to give authorizers more responsibilities. In return, authorizers were to be subjected to annual evaluations by the Minnesota department of Education (MDE).
The intent of the law seemed clear and I believe charter school operators and authorizers alike welcomed those and other changes in the 2009 law. These changes allowed MDE to pass many charter program administrative responsibilities down to the authorizers who better knew and understood the schools they had contracted with. But when MDE implemented the law, they did so in a way that flies in the face of organizational “best practices.” They gave the authorizers all of the responsibilities – but none of the power.
Nearly everything an authorizer must do requires pre-approval from MDE. Want to allow a school to expand by one grade? The law states that such an expansion must be overseen by the authorizer and that a change must be incorporated into the charter contract that the authorizer has with the school. Charter contracts are approved by MDE.
MDE, however, required that the entire plan for such a grade expansion – down to the smallest detail – must first be sent by the authorizer to MDE for approval. Only then could the two organizations enter into a charter contract. Thus, it is not the authorizer’s decision, even though the authorizer is responsible.
This also turns a one or two month process into a two or three year process.
You see, MDE has no direct interest in the success of the school and your school is no more important than some other school. You see, “deciding” is MDE’s forte.
But the authorizer is interested in your school. The school and its authorizer are interested in coming to an agreement and moving on. You see, “educating” is their forte.
The result of this micromanagement of authorizers has slowed charter school organizational changes, impeded the development of cutting edge educational methods – one reason charters were created in the first place – and allowed MDE bureaucrats to keep the power to themselves and hand off all of the responsibility and work to the authorizers.
Here is another example: This year, charter schools, many of them having operated preschool programs since their inception, were required to obtain approval of their preschool programs. Again, the authorizers were instructed to work with the schools to design the programs and then to send the design documents to MDE for approval. Only after this approval, could authorizers and schools negotiate a contract and only then could a charter school continue a program that it had been successfully running for many years.
In the case of one school that I am familiar with, this effort has been in process since February. It is September. The next school year has begun. In the case of this school MDE claimed that multi-age preschool learning environments do not reflect current educational “best practices” (over a century of Montessori Children’s House learning environments notwithstanding). The school has made efforts to address the concerns of MDE, but each such effort added a month to an already long process and accordingly the school has not had its program approved. That non-approval stands in the face of state-mandated requirements to charter schools to be innovative – especially when their preschool programs have been in existence longer than most and already have a proven track-record.
MDE micromanagement of authorizer-responsibilities is unacceptable. Yes, MDE should subject authorizers to an annual evaluation and yes, MDE should hold them accountable, but the department must also be willing to empower authorizers to carry out those decision-making responsibilities for which they will be held accountable.
A state bureaucracy that is concerned with educational best practices certainly should be expected to adhere to organizational best practices as well. MDE should give charter school authorizers the power to carry out their responsibilities.
Published by the Winona Daily News on September 5, 2014 under the title: Empower authorizers at charter schools.