How to Start a Charter School

In December 2007, a good friend invited me to help her launch a charter school. Both of us had children in the same charter school and recognized the tremendous value charter schools offered to students. Our suburb did not have a charter high school, so we felt the time was right to start one. We were excited, motivated and raring to go. What a ride that turned out to be.

We live in Minnesota, the first state to authorize the creation of charter schools. The process of opening a charter school begins with the successful application for a federal start-up grant that is reviewed by a team selected by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). You’re applying for nearly $500,000 in funding to be spread over the pre-operational year and the first two years of school operation. The application process is extensive and in recent years has become quite complex. The MDE requires applicants to attend mandatory workshops and to follow stringent guidelines. Part of the application requires you to spell out a three-year budget and project expenditures based on the number of students you hope to enroll. The other part asks you to explain your curriculum model and how it meets one or more of the six criteria the MDE has established for creating charter schools. In addition, a group must find a sponsor who will provide educational and financial oversight for the school’s set up and operation. You cannot submit an application without a sponsor agreement in place that is contingent on your application’s approval. At least one teacher is required for your team; also, having an accountant and a lawyer assisting you is wise. It can easily take a year or more to research and write a charter school grant application. Writing a charter school grant is not for the faint of heart!

My friend and I contacted education professionals, existing charter schools, read extensively and exchanged ideas nearly daily for months. One of our greatest challenges was to assemble a team that would serve as an interim board until we were approved and incorporated as a non-profit organization. We successfully recruited an accountant and a lawyer to join us. It was much more difficult to recruit a licensed teacher willing to commit to our project. Some cited lack of time; others were clearly not interested in crossing the divide between traditional public schools and charters.

There was also the problem of securing a sponsor. Sponsors often oversee many charter schools, but the trend in our state is for sponsors to limit their openings for new schools and some have stopped taking on any new schools at all. Often their guidelines for submitting an application for their consideration are every bit as detailed and tough as the MDEs. Sponsors may also give priority consideration to schools which fit a particular theme (science and technology, for example) or certain educational models such as project-based learning. We discovered that our concept, although innovative, was not so easy to describe in terms that fit existing sponsors’ criteria. Undaunted, we called, met, and tried to persuade some non-profit groups to apply to the MDE to become a first-time sponsor on our behalf. We generated some interest, but it started to become a wearying and discouraging process.

The annual deadline for submission was fast approaching. We sought help and guidance from a non-profit association that supports charter schools from inception through operation. They provided a team of charter school professionals to review our application. In a frank, detailed, face to face session, the team critiqued each section of our application and concluded it was not ready for submission to the MDE. Offering specific suggestions, they wished us well. My friend, her daughter, and I headed out to get a bite to eat and to regroup. I remember watching huge flakes of snow float over our car in the dark while thunder rumbled in the distance. Amid a strange paradox of early spring weather in Minnesota, we were beginning to grasp the enormity of our dream.

Determined still, we forged ahead on one of their recommendations to survey our community to assess the perceived need for a charter high school of our type. After sweating in the sun for a week at our county fair polling the public, we tallied the results. It was sobering. Many people, including our potential students, did not know that a charter school is a tuition-free public school. They were not interested in a school that would require uniforms or did not provide on-site sports programs. The foreign language most students wanted to learn was Mandarin Chinese, a language which didn’t fit our educational concept.

We also tapped into a group of parents who already had children enrolled at a local K-8 charter school. These parents were excited about our plans to start a high school their children could attend but were not so thrilled with our educational model. They gave us much input on every topic from sex education (not having it) and classical education, but it was clear our school was not going to be what they wished. Rather than alter our vision radically, we had to acknowledge our potential enrollment of these students would most likely be limited.

Having worked as an administrative consultant to my sons’ charter school drafting policy and researching many topics as varied as discipline or establishing a hot lunch program, I knew there were huge administrative and educational hurdles to overcome. Given the record-keeping requirements and logistics of providing hot lunches and transportation, I knew a charter school could not realistically afford to offer such programs that are considered standard in traditional public schools. On the academic side, at the high school level, curriculum must be tailored to provide coursework in accordance with state guidelines for graduation. No matter how progressive a school’s approach may be, the end result is predetermined. Rightfully so, high school students in Minnesota must pass state exams in reading, math and writing. There was serious talk of phasing in exams for science and social studies as well. However, the content and skills covered in these exams would be completely out of our control. It was beginning to feel like we were trying to pound a square peg of innovation into a round hole of entrenched mandates.

On a warm, clear fall day, about nine months after we teamed up, my friend and I had a thoughtful and honest discussion of our endeavor. We considered this project of social entrepreneurship to be worthy and potentially an asset to our community. But it is a four to five year commitment from the very start through the end of your first or second year of operation. There’s no pay and no funding available to pay for travel or research unless you can convince donors to assist your cause without the benefit of tax deductibility. Many human resources and talents are required to prepare your school for opening, all of whom must be recruited as volunteers. With heavy hearts, we ultimately decided to abandon our quest to create a charter school.

Still, we believe it’s an exciting and worthwhile pursuit, and we applaud the courageous few who are able to make it happen. Minnesota’s education system is greater because of charter schools. Parents and students have options and alternatives to traditional programs without the price tag of private institutions. There are few better ways to directly make a difference in the lives of children in your community than founding a charter school. Even though my friend and I didn’t reach our destination, we never regretted the ride.