Reclaiming the Origins of Chartered Schools

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This month, nearly 4,000 educators and friends will come to Minnesota—the birthplace of chartered schools—to celebrate a few months early the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first chartered school in the nation, on Sept. 7, 1992.

As the state Senate author of Minnesota's 1991 legislation that authorized the first chartered schools (or charter schools, as most people call them), I am in awe of the number of young lives touched by chartering today: 2 million students in an estimated 5,600 schools across the country. In September 2011, the Kappan/Gallup PollRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader recorded—for the first time—a 70 percent public approval rating for chartered schools. We have come a long way.

And yet, I know that some charters are not delivering the quality education we envisioned 20 years ago. Accountability is a keystone of the original legislation, and we must, together, make that happen as part of our stand for quality chartered schools in the next decade. One thing we've learned is the importance of developing strong authorizers to hold chartered schools accountable.

As we look to the future of chartering, it is important to revisit the origins and set the historical record straight. Here are some key facts that may surprise you and dispel a few common myths.

Legislation for chartered schools came from the conservative right, in opposition to unions. False.

I've traveled the country and heard many assumptions: The legislation for chartering came from policymakers of the conservative right; or it came from policymakers of the liberal left. The truth is, it didn't come from policymakers at all. It came fromRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader a Minnesota group called the Citizens League formed by local civic leaders, one of whom was a visionary named Ted Kolderie. Without political motives, the group was interested in improving delivery of public education and creating more public school choices for students. Sometimes the most important thing policymakers can do is to remove the barriers and let citizens guide the way.

—Robbie Lawrence

These policy entrepreneurs brought their proposal to a legislature with large majorities in both houses of Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators, and to a newly elected Republican governor who had just appointed the lobbyist for the Minnesota Education Association as his commissioner of education. That was the political setting in which the first chartering legislation passed with bipartisan support, coming from the middle of the political spectrum. I wonder whether chartering, if it were just now being offered as a new idea, would pass in Minnesota or any other state today. There just isn't a "middle" anymore.

The proposal for a "charter school" was suggested by a prominent leader of a national teachers' union. True.

It was Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who challenged attendees at an education reform conference in Minnesota in 1988 to imagine how teachers might partner with the public education "system" to encourage risk-taking and change. "The best answer so far," said Shanker, "is charter schools," crediting Ray Budde with the idea. Think of this. Three years before passage of chartering legislation, in response to the call for education reform in the landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk, Shanker took a bold stand for chartering as a path to professionalize teaching.

I, a DFL legislator and conference attendee, was inspired by Shanker's call to empower teachers to do what they do best. Yes, our points of view diverged along the way; Shanker envisioned chartered schools under district control, while the resulting legislation created them as new schools outside the district. But to this day, I believe that chartering empowers teachers. We currently see teacher cooperatives providing services to chartered schools, and in Minnesota, the first union-initiated charter school authorizer in the country was approved last November.

Chartered schools emerged on the national scene within weeks of passage of the Minnesota legislation. True.

This didn't happen by accident. In September of 1989, a Kappan/Gallup Poll of public attitudes toward education found the U.S. public was ready for "tradition shattering" changes in policies that governed schooling. By a 2-to-1 ratio, the public favored the idea of public school choice, which was already law in Minnesota and Arkansas. By 1990, the nations' governors declared "a major crisis in education."

This was the backdrop against which the Minnesota legislature passed the first chartered school law in 1991. U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., and his policy aide Jon Schroeder, immediately recognized chartering as a viable middle position between President George H.W. Bush's focus on vouchers and U.S. House Democrats who supported the education status quo. Durenberger and Schroeder positioned chartered schools as a pragmatic, centrist national policy alternative at a time when the American public was calling for aggressive reform in education.

"Sometimes the most important thing policymakers can do is to remove the barriers and let citizens guide the way."

Following the Minnesota governor's signing of the chartered school bill on June 4, 1991, the chair of the Washington-based Democratic Leadership Council issued a press release praising the law. The chair of the DLC was a rising star in education reform, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and his connection to the charter movement was not an accident. During the late 1980s, Clinton had pushed to enact open enrollment in his state, the first to follow Minnesota's lead on that form of public school choice. By the fall of 1990, nine months before Minnesota passed the chartering law, the future president was traveling the country promoting chartered schools as part of the DLC agenda, with a 1990 report in hand, written by Kolderie. Chartering was a part of the national conversation even as we struggled to pass the first legislation in Minnesota.

As the Senate author, I celebrated passage of the first chartered school bill when it passed by a margin of three votes. False.

By the time we passed the chartered school law in 1991 in Minnesota, I thought the bill was so compromised that a chartered school would never open. I was bitterly disappointed. Approval to start a chartered school was required from both the state board of education and the local school board; there was no alternate sponsor. My fear was confirmed when only two of the first nine chartered school applicants gained approval. As one applicant lamented, "We were on the bleeding edge of change." Yet, years later, I realized that had we not compromised on the bill, chartering likely would not have passed the state legislature. In 1993 and many years after, we returned to improve the law, and Minnesota's chartered school law became a model for the nation.

I hope this story—with all of its bumps and bruises along the way—will help start a new conversation about chartering in this country. If there is one important lesson I learned as an author of this legislation, it is this: Compromise is not defeat.

I wonder if there is a lesson in this about compromise for today's political times. While I was personally devastated with the result at the time, the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Becky Kelso, DFL-Minn., thought the result was "spectacular." Why? Because when Rep. Kelso took sponsorship of the bill in the state House, she "had zero confidence it would pass." I'm glad I didn't know that 20 years ago.

It's time to ask: What's working in public chartered schools, and what's working in public district schools? How can we learn from each other? Working together and compromising on our differences, we can transform millions of young lives and even transform communities. We can provide the freedom to be better.

Vol. 31, Issue 35, Pages 32, 40

Published in Print: June 13, 2012, as Reclaiming the Origins of Chartered Schools
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