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Mila Koumpilova, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published January 13 2014

Minnesota to step up evaluations of charter school overseers

ST. PAUL – Minnesota is preparing to step up oversight of the nonprofits, school districts and colleges that monitor the state’s charter schools.

Each of the state’s independently run public schools has such an organization, called an authorizer, overseeing its finances, academics and operations. Last week, the state Department of Education shared with authorizers new guidelines spelling out how it will size them up starting next year.

The evaluations are part of a new charter school law the state has been rolling out since 2010. As part of its overall push for stronger oversight of charters, the law also requires the state to monitor its monitors more closely.

“We believe putting the evaluations in place is an important step in our collaborative efforts to ensure high-quality public schools for every child in every setting,” said Charlene Briner, the Education Department’s chief of staff.

A number of the state’s 26 authorizers said their first impressions of the evaluation rubric are positive overall. Still, some said they are eager to offer feedback that will shape the final process, including in focus groups slated for this week.

Nationally, a rapid growth in charter school enrollment over the past decade has come with more vocal calls to hold charters and their authorizers accountable. Some experts have pointed to the new charter law in Minnesota, the birthplace of the charter movement, as a model of how to do that better.

The new evaluations will bring together a wide array of data, documents and other information to gauge how well authorizers are doing their job.

The state will look at how versed the organizations are in setting clear goals for their schools, with reasonable timelines for meeting them. It will consider how well the overseers guard against the conflicts of interest that sometimes have plagued authorizers and the schools they monitor.

The state also will look at how closely the authorizers track the schools’ academics and finances and how effectively they address complaints and other issues. Finally, the Department of Education will hold authorizers accountable for the performance of their charters: How well are students performing on state math and reading tests? What percentage are graduating on time? Are the schools closing achievement and graduation gaps between students of color and their white peers? Are the schools’ finances healthy?

Authorizers that score low on the evaluation will be given time to step up their game. However, they will not be able to take on new schools or oversee expansions of their existing charters.

Some authorizers said the draft guidelines are a solid start, but they appreciate the chance to offer input into the final evaluation rules.

“This will be the most important piece of judging authorizers,” said Bob Wedl with the authorizer Innovative Quality Schools, a former Minnesota education commissioner. “It needs to be right.”

For instance, Wedl said, the state should consider looking at more metrics in sizing up charters’ academic performance beyond state test scores and graduation. The evaluation should in some way give authorizers credit for helping to spur innovation in the charters they oversee, such as giving teachers more leadership roles. “Chartering is the research sector of public education,” Wedl said.

David Greenberg, the charter school lead coordinator at Audubon Center of the North Woods, said his first impressions also were generally positive. He said he will definitely have questions and feedback for the Education Department this week.

“As the largest authorizer in the state, we welcome a comprehensive, fair and transparent evaluation system,” Greenberg said. “I think Minnesota is on its way to having such a system.”

Wendy Swanson-Choi, executive director at Novation Education Opportunities, praised the focus on improvement over time in the evaluation format.

The state expects to complete its plan for the overall evaluation process by the end of June.


The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.