Nice collaboration between districts, charter schools

Joe Nathan

Contributing Writer

In an encouraging display of bipartisan agreement last week, Minnesota legislators said, “yes” to collaboration between district and charter schools. Wisely, they said “no” to a proposal from the Lakes International Charter, and the Forest Lake School District that was confusing and troubling.

Collaboration can help participating faculty and students they serve. For example:

• James Steckart, director of the Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids recently wrote “Traditional and charter school teaching teams visit our school on a monthly basis.  (Recently) members of Spring Lake Park Area Learning Center spent one of their professional development days at our school learning from staff and students.”

• Last year district and charter educators (including Steckart and people who had helped develop an environmentally-friendly building in the Elk River Public Schools) helped planned and spoke at a national conference on “Green Schools.” They shared ideas about teaching students about environmental issues.

• Faribault Public Schools rents an empty building in Nerstrand to a local charter. Nerstrand Charter School has been recognized by the Minnesota Department of Education for its excellent work with young people. It has helped other schools understand how they operate.

• For the last 10 years, our organization has sponsored or co-sponsored workshops featuring outstanding district and charter public schools. Many educators are eager to learn from each other.

So if collaboration can be valuable, why did Republican and Democratic legislators in the Minnesota House Education Policy Committee (and several others, including me) raise concerns about a bill proposing collaboration between the Forest Lake district and Lakes International Charter?

•As Representative Rena Moran pointed out, the bill appeared to allow this, and only this charter to “double dip” into taxpayer money.  The legislature adopted “lease aid” for charters to help them pay for buildings because charters may not levy taxes. This bill allowed the school to receive both property taxes and lease aid.

• Accountability for results was not clear.  The bill said the school would be part of the district. But it also said that the district and Volunteers of America, the school’s current authorizer (supervisor) would meet “at least annually to assess the progress and status of the pilot project.” What if the district and the authorizer disagreed? That was not clear.

• In 2009 the Legislature wisely required greater accountability from charter school authorizers. A Legislative Auditor’s report found that some authorizers were not providing much supervision for charters. Legislators said every authorizer of a charter must have its plans to supervise schools approved by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). But this bill did not require that the school have an MDE approved authorizer.

Eugene Piccolo, head of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools suggested that the school and district consider a “joint powers” agreement. That’s worth exploring.

Also worth noting is that Rep. Bob Dettmer of Forest Lake, who introduced the legislation, was praised by several of his former students who testified, both for and against the bill.

On a bipartisan basis, people expressed considerable respect for Dettmer and considerable support for collaboration.  That’s the spirit that produces progress.

– Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. He welcomes reactions, [email protected]