Defining What is a Quality Charter School in Minnesota?

  • Source:

  • MN Association of Charter Schools

Defining What is a Quality Charter School in Minnesota?

Throughout the nation, there is a conversation underway to define a high quality charter school.  If you listen closely to the conversation, you hear those who argue that high quality should be determined solely on performance on state test scores or AYP performance, others who argue that the definition must include growth or value added measures, yet others who argue that high quality needs to include measures beyond academics and include the impact the school is making in students' lives and society, others that high quality must include measures related to school operations – governance, finances, and innovations – and still others who question why there should be a different definition of high quality for charter schools and traditional public schools.

The conversation about high quality is also intrinsically linked to another conversation that is raging in the charter world. It is the conversation about how many charters should be closed and what should be the criteria for closing low quality (performing) charter schools. The underlying question in that conversation is, what exactly is the definition of a low quality (performing) school?

In the first conversation some folks argue that to sustain the charter school movement all we need to do is replicate what are “defined” as quality schools. The fundamental concept of charters being centers of innovation and laboratories of experimentation are not high priorities.

In the second conversation, some folks argue that the only way the charter school movement can be sustained is to close at least a portion (the percentage often mentioned is 20%) of low quality (performing) charter schools. The concept is that closing a certain percentage of schools will show real accountability to the concept of chartering.

Given that most states, including Minnesota, do not have a definition of a high quality charter school or a low quality charter school, the US Department of Education outlined how it defines high quality in last year’s federal application for the Charter School Program funding.

While the United States Department of Education provided a definition for states without one, it did invite states to provide a state definition of a high quality charter school.  No matter the definition, the federal application asked states to identify the number of high quality charter schools in the state, describe how the rate has changed over the past five years, and also include the percentage of high quality charter schools in the state and how the percentage has changed over the last five years.

It is not unreasonable that during this 20th anniversary of charter schools in Minnesota we engage in a discussion of definitions and questions around what quality means in terms of schools.

If one accepts the idea that there needs to be definitions of a high quality charter school and a low quality (performing) charter school, there are a number of questions that need to be addressed.

  • First, who should have the authority to define a high quality and a low performing charter school?
  • Second, what should be the criteria of the measurements for those definitions?
  • Third, what should be the entity that measures and determines if a school meets either the definition of high quality or low quality (performance)?
  • Fourth, what should be the process for a school to challenge a determination?
  • Fifth, what should be the rewards for being a high quality charter school and the consequences for being a low performing charter school?  How long does a low performing school get to turn itself around?

The first question - who should have the authority to define high and low quality? - is the fundamental question that impacts the other four basic questions. Different states are dealing with this in different ways - as it should be, given that every state's charter school law and standards are different.

Some states are incorporating a definition in state law, while in others, state charter associations are creating quality standards and challenging schools to meet those standards or be publicly named that they are not meeting standards for charter schools. In other states, authorizers are establishing definitions and making renewal decisions on the basis of their own definitions.

Over the course of the last few months the MACS Board of Directors has discussed the fundamental question and came to the conclusion that in the spirit of the charter school ideal of autonomy that the charter school community (schools and authorizers in collaboration) need to take the leadership in this defining quality –as it is schools and authorizers who are accountable for the quality of charter schools.

In light of that belief, the MACS Board of Directors in December approved the creation of a Task Force on Charter School Quality. The Task Force is being charged with:

  1. Researching the factors and measures for determining quality,
  2. Planning events and processes for engaging the charter school community in the discussion of quality, and
  3. Developing recommendations on the definitions of quality charter schools in Minnesota.

The goal is for Minnesota’s charter school community to develop a consensus on what quality (high and low) mean, and to use those definitions as the basis for accountability to ensure excellence in education for our students.


Eugene Piccolo
Executive Director