THE CASE FOR LEGALLY DEFINING
THE ROLE & RESPONSIBILITIES of CHARTER SCHOOL AUTHORIZERS
Ever since the beginning of the charter school movement, with the enactment of Minnesota’s first in the nation charter school law over 25 years ago, the role and responsibilities of authorizers (then sponsors) has been a central question.
In the very beginning, sponsoring often meant nothing more than a school district signing a piece of paper without really doing much more. Some individuals thought it meant being a guide, a mentor, or a friend of the school. Others thought it meant doing a visit or two and some monitoring. Over time, there was a recognition that sponsors did have some role and responsibilities, although it was not exactly agreed upon or clear what those responsibilities were to sponsors or schools.
No matter what it meant to people, circumstances and situations made it clearer that sponsors had some responsibility to ensure that schools were held accountable to some standard of performance – if nothing more than fulfilling legal and moral duties.
As the charter school movement grew and more organizations became sponsors, there were efforts to provide technical assistance and training to sponsors. In time, these efforts were seen as inadequate as not all sponsors participated in the training or availed themselves of the technical assistance. While not every sponsor participated in these efforts, the expectations of what sponsoring meant grew by the year. As expectations became clearer, it also became apparent that the fee sponsors could collect by law was inadequate – if sponsors were to even undertake basic oversight of the schools.
After several years of discussion, the charter school movement went to the legislature in 2009 with a proposal to better define some of the tasks involved in sponsoring schools. The proposal also called for reframing the role by changing the term sponsors to authorizers, in recognition of different expectations. The legislation adopted by the legislature also required that sponsors/authorizers demonstrate, for the first time, that they had the capacity to do oversight of charters, and that the MN Department of Education would review their performance on a regular basis. In turn, the law increased the amount of the fees that an authorizer could get for doing its oversight responsibilities.
The new expectations for authorizers led a number of sponsors to announce that they would no longer serve as a sponsor/authorizer, which led to a scramble over a period of years while schools searched for new authorizers.
At the same time that sponsors were leaving, others were trying to figure out how to meet the requirements to become approved authorizers, and schools scrambled to find approved authorizers. Further, the MN Department of Education began defining what it believed were the responsibilities of an authorizer, and began designing the performance review process for authorizers. While authorizers had input in the design of the review process, they were still trying to figure out what the reframing of authorizing meant, while attempting to implement the new expectations.
All of these events occurring simultaneously in a relatively short number of years have led to some tension and frustrations between schools and authorizers; authorizers and the Department; and schools and the Department about the role and responsibilities of authorizers. Those tensions and frustrations have made themselves manifest through complaints about:
- the Department not understanding the role of authorizers and, at times, asking authorizers to take actions beyond authorizer authority;
- the Department dealing with compliance issues through authorizers, instead of with schools as they would with any other public school;
- the authorizers performance process reviews and the impact on authorizers, and the state of authorizing;
- authorizers micromanaging of schools;
- authorizers placing overly burdensome paperwork expectations on schools;
- the Department creating “rules” without any authority; and
- the authorizers asking how they can respect school autonomy given pressure by the Department to cross over into the schools’ responsibilities.
None of these complaints individually means that the authorizing system needs to be examined holistically. However, taken together they provide ample evidence that it is time to do so, beginning with a more specific definition of the role and responsibilities of authorizers.