The complicated history of America’s first ‘union-backed’ charter authorizer

Originally published in MinnPost on December 21, 2016.
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Despite its name, the Community School of Excellence in St. Paul has not distinguished itself with excellence. Instead, the Hmong-focused charter has become one of Minnesota’s most scandal-ridden schools. Battles between teachers and the administration have been common, with educators repeatedly reporting threats and retaliatory behavior. And since 2012, the school has been found not only to have suppressed multiple reports of suspected child abuse at the urging of its controversial superintendent, but also to have misdirected federal funds for subsidized student lunches — even after receiving a hefty fine for the practice.

Nor has the Community School of Excellence excelled academically. Since its inception, the school has produced poor test score results. In 2016, just a third of its students met state reading standards.

Yet these troubles have not prevented the school’s rapid expansion. When it opened in 2007, the CSE had 176 students; today, it’s one of the largest charter schools in Minnesota, with nearly 1,000 kids enrolled.

After a state investigation and reams of bad publicity — within just a few years the school had been investigated by the FBI, the Minnesota Department of Education, the federal Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, local law enforcement, and the National Labor Relations Board — the powers-that-be had had enough. When efforts to jettison the school’s superintendent failed, the school’s legal backer abandoned it altogether, a move that could have effectively shuttered the flailing charter.

Instead, something else happened. The Community School of Excellence was bailed out — just hours before it would have been closed permanently — by an unlikely savior: The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit created by the local teachers union and funded in part by its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers.

A unique law

To understand what a union-backed group was doing rescuing a notorious charter school — and why that was so unusual — you have to dive into the little-noticed world of charter authorizing.

Charters aren’t unregulated, of course, but their monitoring system isn’t well understood, either. Across the country, charter schools are generally overseen by another organization: most often a public school district, but it could also be anything from a university to a state commission. This third party — called an authorizer — grants a charter the right to exist, and in turn, takes over much of the work of ensuring that the school complies with relevant laws and regulations. Authorizers are also tasked with monitoring schools’ academic performance. In theory, if a charter strays too far from the straight and narrow, authorizers are expected to shut it down.

Minnesota, long regarded as a leader in education reform, virtually invented the authorizer system when it opened up the nation’s very first charter school 25 years ago. By the early aughts, however, state officials recognized that they had accumulated an awfully high number of charter authorizers (then referred to as “sponsors”) that were not taking their oversight responsibilities very seriously, a situation that enabled some charter leaders to seek out especially lax authorizers.

In response, in 2009, legislators decided to increase the responsibilities assigned to Minnesota authorizers. When all was said and done, the reforms reduced the number of authorizers in the state from 51 to 13, and education reform advocates took the dramatic drop as an encouraging sign: an indication that bad actors were weeded out, or at least those not serious enough about monitoring school quality.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says Minnesota’s 2009 reforms were “certainly the most rigorous form of accountability for authorizers that has occurred anywhere in the country, then and today.”

But at the same time that Minnesota cracked down on negligent charter authorizers, state officials opened a new can of worms. Within the same 2009 legislation, lawmakers created what are known as “single-purpose charter authorizers” — unique nonprofits that exist nowhere else in the United States. Only two states, Ohio and Minnesota, currently have nonprofits authorizing charter schools, but these have traditionally been pre-existing entities like universities or social-service organizations.

A “single-purpose charter authorizer” was a new idea: a nonprofit that exists only to open, close, and monitor charters. The thinking was that such an organization could devote all its attention to diligently overseeing charters, thus boosting education quality more broadly.

An unusual alliance

Today, the Minnesota Guild is one of four single-purpose authorizers in the state, though that’s not the only reason it’s unusual. To see why, it’s important to know that teacher unions and charter schools have long had a fraught relationship. Most charter teachers are at-will employees, and the more students that charters attract, the less union jobs are likely to exist at traditional public schools.

And while a growing number of charter school teachers have received support from the labor movement to organize at their schools, teacher unions still generally lobby to limit charter expansion, pointing to negative fiscal impacts they have on traditional public schools, among other things.

The idea for the Minnesota Guild came from Lynn Nordgren and Louise Sundin, two former presidents of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s local affiliate. In 2010, they applied for an AFT Innovation Fund grant, money for local unions in pursuit of creative projects. Nordgren and Sundin proposed creating an authorizer that would open schools “in the spirit of Albert Shanker” — the former AFT president who originally propelled charter schools onto the national stage.

Shanker envisioned charters as small, independent schools, where teachers could experiment with new ideas, and bring the most successful ones back into traditional public schools.

At the time, Sundin and Nordgren said their plan would elevate teacher voices and secure unions a seat at the education reform table. An AFT press release called the Guild “a bold and unprecedented opportunity for teachers to approve charters.” Writing in the Star Tribune, Nordgren said it would “approve new, high-quality schools” and ensure that teachers “are respected and have a voice.” Arguing that unions want and need to be part of the charter school conversation, Nordgren stressed the Guild would “accelerate the oft-delayed process of opening schools that aim to close the achievement gap.”

In late 2011, the Guild was officially approved as a single-purpose charter authorizer, the new type of overseer the State of Minnesota had approved two years before. In its formal application to the state, the Guild pledged to open 35 charters during its first five years. 

A complicated relationship

It didn’t work out that way. The Guild was slow to get started, and two years in it had zero schools in its portfolio. Now, though, the Guild is opening new charters and taking over existing charters at a much more rapid clip. It is now the authorizer for 11 charter schools, five of which came under its control this fall. Eleven more are in the pipeline, and the organization says it’s still committed to its original plan of authorizing a total of 35 schools.

Though one might expect a union-backed authorizer to oversee a bunch of unionized charters, especially given its public comments at the time of its inception, that’s not the case. The Community School of Excellence is actually the only Guild charter school to have a union, and it was organized in 2014, two years before coming under the Guild’s auspices.

That made more sense after talking to Brad Blue, who has served as the Guild’s director since its inception. Blue is an eclectic figure: He’s played professional hockey, owns a farm, holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence — and, as it turns out, isn’t really so jazzed about unions. In fact, he goes to great lengths to emphasize how neutral he is on the subject. “We don’t work directly, or even indirectly, with unions, or locals,” he said. “We’re neutral about that — we’re neither for unions, nor against. It’s a school’s decision.”

Over the years, many have wondered if the Guild represents a subversive attempt to unionize charters. After all, one of its unique aspects is that it requires employers to stay neutral if teachers decide to launch an organizing drive. But Blue flatly rejects that notion. “How many Guild schools are even unionized?” Blue says. “Only one, and they just transferred in July. For us it’s a really moot point.”

For the past five years, the AFT has given the Guild roughly $500,000 in total grants. But when AFT representatives were asked if they thought it was an issue that so few of the Guild’s schools were unionized, officials said they weren’t worried, noting that charter teachers overseen by the Guild are well positioned to move forward with union campaigns. “There’s no way to wave the wand and make a union happen,” says Mary Cathryn Ricker, the AFT’s executive vice president. “There were no hard deadlines [for organizing unions]. It was more aspirational.”

Ricker also seemed unconcerned about Blue’s remarks regarding unions at the Guild’s schools. “The Guild has to approach authorizing with integrity,” she says. “If you look at the original purpose of the Guild, and the authorizing agreement, there is an effort to deliberately recognize the rights of workers to organize in their workplace. At the same time, the Guild cannot both authorize and organize them. At the end of the day, the organizing itself is our responsibility as current union members.”

Given the unprecedented nature of an authorizer like The Minnesota Guild, I asked Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, if he thought it would violate authorizer norms if the Guild were openly pro-union. “I think it’s more than fine. It’s even good,” Richmond answered, noting that one of the benefits of having multiple charter authorizers in a state is precisely so they can encourage different types of schools.

Locally, the Guild has gained notoriety among traditional public school teachers, many of whom consider the schools it authorizes to be in direct competition with their own schools. Robert Panning-Miller, a 25-year veteran teacher of the Minneapolis public schools and a former MFT president, says there was absolutely no debate or discussion among rank-and-file members about whether their union should back a charter authorizer.

“The first time I learned our union planned to authorize charter schools was when Lynn Nordgren announced it in the Star Tribune,” echoes Valerie Olsen-Rittler, a high school social studies teacher who has been working in Minneapolis for 27 years. She now serves on the MFT executive board, and tries to find ways to protest the Guild’s activities.

Panning-Miller, Olsen-Rittler, and several others I spoke with told me emphatically that their local union has not invested time in organizing the Guild’s charter schools. The current president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Michelle Wiese, did not return multiple requests for comment.

For the Guild’s first several years of existence, the MFT provided the group office space, free of charge. “Those of us who are MFT members had no say in the creation of the Guild, and now we continue to subsidize our own demise,” Panning-Miller wrote in the winter of 2015. (The MFT voted to have the Guild leave its building before the start of the 2015-16 school year.)

Some members have also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interests between the Guild and the union. For a while, Lynn Nordgren was both the MFT’s president and a Minnesota Guild board member. Louise Sundin still serves as the MFT’s lobbyist in addition to being a Guild board member. Panning-Miller has floated the idea of taking legal action, saying that a union leader supporting the creation of nonunion schools should be seen as a violation of their fiduciary obligations.

From the ‘spirit of Albert Shanker’ to ‘financial pragmatism’

In theory, single-purpose authorizers are supposed to be better able to devote their attention to regulating and monitoring the charter schools under their purview. As Nordgren wrote when the Guild was founded, “In order to receive this approval, the Guild had to meet very high standards, established in Minnesota in 2009, that require authorizers to adhere to national standards for charter school oversight and quality.”

Yet unlike traditional nonprofit organizations that authorize charters, single-purpose authorizers are limited in their ability to fundraise. Aside from grants, they can only raise revenue from authorizing fees, which are paid by the schools being authorized on a per-student basis. In other words, if a single-purpose charter authorizer closes down a school, or turns down an authorizer-seeking charter school, it would be directly harming its own bottom line.

Blue, for one, has been upfront about the reason for the Guild’s ambitious goal of overseeing 35 charter schools: financial pragmatism. “We need to build a portfolio of schools that’s substantial enough for our expenses,” he says.

Blue says those expenses currently include office space, contractors to help review charter applications and monitor schools, an employee who manages the Guild’s projects and portfolio, and a web-based tool for authorizers, Epicenter. Those expenses also include Blue’s salary. In 2013 — before the Guild authorized any schools — he took home $110,000 in compensation from the organization, 72 percent of the Guild’s overall expenses that year. In 2014, the organization raised his pay to $128,000.

Yet Blue’s responsibilities with the Guild have not prevented him from serving in other positions in the charter sector. In 2013, in addition to serving as the Guild’s director, he founded a St. Paul charter school, where he was paid $33,000 in 2014. Tax forms also stated that Blue worked 40-hours per week for each organization. (The school, Upper Mississippi Academy, is not authorized by the Guild.) He has since left that school to found another charter, which will open in the fall of 2017.

“I’m a Canadian, I’m a social welfare guy at heart. I’m also a capitalist, which is why I live in America,” Blue tells me.

Performance issues

Often lost in the Guild’s complicated history is a fundamental question: How are its schools actually doing?

Five years ago, the union insisted the venture would enable it to open up high-performing charters that help close the achievement gap. Or as Nordgren wrote in the Star Tribune: “The Guild will ensure applicants’ proposals include a clear mission, detailed curriculum, high student achievement benchmarks, healthy governance and sound finances.”

In its drive to add schools to its portfolio, however, the Guild has become the authorizer of some of the worst achieving charters in Minnesota. Take the Augsburg Fairview Academy, a charter school that opened in 2005, and that the Guild added to its portfolio this past summer. According to state data, just 5 percent of the school’s students tested proficiently in math in 2016. Or College Prep Elementary, where just 17 percent of students met state reading standards, compared to 60 percent statewide. The state found 26 percent of College Prep Elementary students were on track for math success this past year, down from nearly 50 percent in 2012. Or Lincoln International High School, where just 2.7 percent of students met math standards in 2016, and 6 percent met reading standards.

And while it’s possible that these schools will improve under the Guild’s stewardship, the odds are against it. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers discourages authorizers from taking over low-performing charters, as there’s very little evidence to suggest that new authorizers can turn them around. In fact, such takeovers tend to help poor charters avoid closure and accountability, the very thing single-purpose authorizers were designed to curtail when the law was passed seven years ago.

If the Guild meets its goal of opening 35 charter schools, it would become one of the largest authorizers in the state, though there does remain one possible obstacle. Every five years, Minnesota officials are required to review the performance of charter authorizers, and the state’s evaluation of the Guild is set to be issued by the end of January.

It’s highly unlikely that the Guild won’t pass that evaluation, given the way those reviews are conducted. So far, most authorizers have passed, even if they receive low scores on important metrics, like their criteria for opening or closing a school.

And with each new school that it authorizes, the Guild becomes less financially dependent on the AFT; its most recent grant from the union was for just $50,000, as the Guild now earns sufficient revenue on its own through authorizing fees.

The irony underlying the country’s first “union-backed” charter authorizer is that it soon may not be backed by, or accountable to, any union at all.

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