Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Charter School Hearing Kicks Up Some Dust. One of the really great things about my job is that each and every day is different and every now and then you stroll into a legislative hearing and are just flat-out blown away by the passion and insight provided. Such was the case at yesterday's hearing of the House/Senate Charter Schools Working Group. With all of the controversy surrounding charter schools, both in terms of performance and administration, arising in the past few months, the House and Senate Education Policy Committees have convened a working group to study where we sit in terms of this school reform 17 years after Minnesota passed the first charter school legislation in the nation. Shown on the right (from left to right, are working group chairs Senator Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury) and Representative Linda Slocum (DFL-Minneapolis) along with Senator Sandy Rummel (DFL-White Bear Lake).

The hearing began with a discussion of the Office of the Legislative Auditor's evaluation report on charter schools. The report was presented by its evaluation manager, Judith Randall (pictured at left).

While finding that after adjustments for different demographic and student attendance patterns are considered, differences in achievement between charter schools and regular public school are minimal, the report does make five recommendations. They are as follows: (1) Clarification by the Legislature of roles of the Minnesota Department of Education and charter school sponsors, (2) Implementation of standards for sponsors by the Minnesota Department of Education, (3) Requirement for all charter school board members to receive financial management training, (4) Expansion of conflict-of-interest laws as they relate to charter school boards, and (5) Repeal of the requirement that a majority of a charter school board be teachers.

When the Office of the Legislative Auditor embarked on their effort, many believed the result would be much more hard-hitting. Even if the report does not "blow the roof" off anything, neither does it give charter schools a clean bill-of-health. The report clearly points out the challenges facing charter schools, their sponsors, and the state as it grapples with an education movement where 24,000 Minnesota students receive their education.

Minnesota Department of Education Assistant Commissioner Morgan Brown responded to the Legislative Auditor's report and informed the working group that the Department will be introducing legislation that will address some of these concerns.

The "polite fireworks" of the day began with a presentation by former State Representative and current University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield's presentation. Orfield (pictured testifying at left flanked by Institute researchers Baris Gumus-Dawes on his left and Tom Luce on his right), who heads the Institute on Race and Poverty at the Law School, provided data and research from a report prepared by the Institute showing that charter school performance lags behind that of the regular public schools and, further, are serving to "re-segregate" inner city and inner-ring suburban schools Orfield has worked for years on issues related to poverty and whether or not one agrees with his conclusions, his methodology is meticulous.

A panel of inner-city charter school leaders--Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, Eric Mahmoud, and for St. Paul City Council member Bill Wilson (pictured in order from right to left)--defended the performance of charter schools, which are primarily comprised of African-American students. The African-American students at each of these schools is out-performing the African-American cohort of student not only in the inner cities, but also in a number of suburban districts. They also defended a number of charter schools that are not doing as well, citing the relative newness of those schools.

It was a commendable performance by all involved in the hearing, as charter school performance, especially as it relates to the performance of minority students can be a difficult subject to discuss. People on both sides of the issue spoke with both expertise and passion as they staked out their respective intellectual territory on the issue.

My take on the issue has less to do with charter schools and more to do with how we measure student performance. It's really too bad that this hearing couldn't have followed the Monday's hearing on assessment. What is clearly needed to clear up performance concerns in both charter and regular schools is a valid "growth" model for judging student performance year-to-year and building-to-building.

As controversial as charter schools have become, I don't foresee a day without them being part of the educational landscape in Minnesota. I can also appreciate the desire of many Minnesota's minority communities to have as much input as they can in the education of their children and how they can somehow feel stunted in these efforts by large school environments. What is needed is greater transparency in how charter schools operate and the encouragement to share more between the charter and regular school frameworks, so that best practices--moving in both directions--can find their way into more classrooms.


Legislative Auditor's Report:

Institute on Race and Poverty Report:

StarTribune Story on Institute on Race and Poverty Report:

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