One thing that remains murky to me is how accountable the state Charter Schools Commission – which a Fulton County judge recently ruled is constitutional – is for the schools that it approves over the objections of local boards of education. The commission is here in Atlanta, but it is approving schools across the state.
As the authorizer of the schools, how is the commission held accountable if one goes bad or if parents are unhappy and can’t go to the local school board to complain since the local folks had nothing to do with the school’s approval?
At a media briefing earlier this year, Charter Schools Commission member Jennifer Rippner surprised me when I asked whether parents of students in a commission charter school could ultimately turn to the charter commission with complaints that they felt were not being dealt with by the school itself or its board of directors.
Her answer was “yes,” raising the possibility of unhappy parents trying to track down the seven commissioners – most of whom have full-time, high-profile careers — and get them to delve into a problem their child was having in a school in south Georgia. Frankly, I just couldn’t see it happening.
Now comes an interesting development in Minnesota, the birthing ground of the charter school movement.
The case of a Minneapolis charter school whose former director allegedly embezzled nearly $1.4 million is just one example of the problems lawmakers hope to squelch with new rules about how charter schools are overseen.
As the schools reach new heights of popularity in Minnesota, they’ll also find themselves under closer scrutiny, thanks to the biggest overhaul in the way the schools are regulated since the state became the first to pass a charter school law in 1991.
Legislative changes affecting the special breed of public schools will increase oversight, close loopholes and clean up unclear language that had made it easier for some schools to get away with sloppy management or outright theft. Charter school sponsors will have stricter guidelines — which could drive some away — and the state will have more power to withhold taxpayer money or to shut down a school that breaks the law.
“If these laws are working, then we’ll stop seeing these stories in the news,” said Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Finance Division.
One key question lawmakers sought to clarify was who should carry the biggest burden when it comes to monitoring individual schools: the state or authorizers. “One of the big glitches was that the state — the Department of Education — wasn’t able to dog and track all these charter schools,” Greiling said,
Some authorizers have gone “above and beyond the law” watching over the finances and operation of their charter schools, but others rarely even visit schools, said Chas Anderson, state Education Department deputy commissioner. “Without a strong authorizer, it’s really hit or miss whether a charter school is going to be successful.”
New rules require authorizers to keep closer tabs on charter schools and give them more power to cut ties with a failing school. “Now we have clarified that authorizers have ongoing and significant responsibilities. They can’t just sign their name and move on,” Greiling said.