MDE’s attempt to pull charter schools under its integration rules rejected

March 29, 2016 • John Kostouros

For years charter school advocates have complained about regulatory overreach by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) leading to a gradual loss of the freedom to operate differently than traditional district schools. Those complaints grew louder last year when MDE issued a proposed rewrite of the rules governing the Achievement and Integration for Minnesota Act.

MDE’s proposed rules would have, for the first time, required charter schools to create an “achievement & integration plan” if they enrolled high proportions of students of color. State funding would be made available to help implement the plans, which must spell out specific measurable goals related to both academic achievement and racial integration, and must be approved by MDE.

Critics from both the district and charter sectors complained that the new rules were unworkably vague and questionably effective in meeting the stated purposes of the Act. Charter school advocators had a bigger concern, however. State law (section 125E.03) states that charter schools are exempt from all state laws and rules unless explicitly specified. Including charters under such a rule would create what they considered a dangerous precedent of the executive branch stepping beyond its authority, and making law rather than implementing law.

The advocates organized extensive testimony at MDE’s public hearings, submitted written comments, and suggested changes to the proposed rules. When the final proposed rule language came out, however, much of what they had objected to was still in place.

The resulting review by an administrative law judge (ALJ) thus remained the best hope for blocking the inclusion of charter schools. On March 21, in a ruling court watchers say was unusually blunt, the ALJ rejected the proposed rules, agreeing with the critics that MDE had failed to establish a justification for the proposed changes and failed to address such requirements as the impact on and probable costs to schools.

Most important to charter school advocates, the ALJ said MDE had exceeded its authority by including charter schools under the new rules without clear, explicit legislative intent. The ruling left charter advocates relieved and the ball back in MDE’s court, with the only route of appeal being to the Legislature itself.