Authorizer ranks thin as state plays more active role

Prior to 2009, when legislators made major changes to the law regulating school chartering in Minnesota, more than 50 school districts, colleges and nonprofits had agreed to serve as what were then called “sponsors” for new charter schools. Today that number is down to 24, with several stating their intention to discontinue acting as what are now called “authorizers.” Why the drop in organizations willing to serve this critical role, and what does the drop mean for the future of chartering in Minnesota?

Eugene Picollo, head of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, attributes the decline in authorizers to stricter qualifications for would-be authorizers, and more rigorous evaluation and reporting requirements. The 2009 law expanded the oversight role of the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) in response to several past problems, including the financial failure of several schools and a prosecution that sent one sponsor to prison for misuse of state education funds.

The schools currently under authorizers that are pulling back will need to find a new authorizer. Augsburg, for instance, has five schools; Concordia two and Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, Rochester Technical College and UMD one each. See a complete list of Minnesota authorizers that have, or are planning to, withdraw.

More concerning is the impact on future expansion of chartering in Minnesota. “It’s a big issue,” says Picollo. “We’ll have very slow growth unless we deal with the authorizer situation.”

Under the 2009 law, MDE is supposed to review each authorizer every five years. MDE is currently using a consulting firm from Chicago to conduct the reviews. Some recent applicants for renewal were told they didn’t meet the requirements and had to reapply after making several changes. Picollo believes that Minnesota is the only state that requires such a detailed review of authorizers by the state.

Dr. Chris Richardson, Superintendent of Northfield School District, which has been a sponsor/authorizer since 2002, says the process the district had to go through in 2011 to be approved under the new rules was rigorous and time-consuming, but that the process to get renewed has proven to be even more so, requiring a 23-page application and over 600 pages of documentation.

Even after all that work, Northfield was told its application was unsatisfactory and that it had to go through a revision process before it could be renewed as an authorizer. Richardson believes that the new time-consuming process for approval and renewal has convinced a number of authorizers that sponsoring a charter school has become more trouble than it is worth.

“I think we lost some really good people to this process,” says Richardson.

Not everyone thinks the reduction in authorizing organizations is a bad thing. Education Evolving, which produces this blog, was an advocate for the 2009 changes, says Bob Wedl, former Minnesota Commissioner of Education and EE Senior Fellow. “Before that, the state of authorizing was terrible. Anybody could sign up. Many never did anything. Never even visited their schools,” says Wedl. “I think the Department is trying to force authorizers to do a better job.”

Wedl concedes that the new requirements have led many authorizers, including several school districts, to pull out of chartering. “There may be some overkill by the Department,” he says.

The 2009 law allowed for the creation of organizations whose sole purpose was to authorize charter schools called Single Purpose Authorizers (SPAs). The idea was to create entities that could develop expertise in sponsoring charter schools. Innovative Quality Schools (IQS), for example, sponsors 24 schools.

Wedl, a founder of IQS, thinks a solution to a potential scarcity of authorizers would be for the state or foundations to provide startup grants to SPAs starting new schools. Currently SPAs can only gain income once a school is up and running with students.

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