School Choice & Charters

An Insider’s Look at the Origins of Charter Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — April 19, 2012 3 min read
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It’s been two decades since the first charter schools took hold within the American education system. Ember Reichgott Junge was there at the day of creation.

Reichgott Junge, as a Minnesota state senator in the early 1990s, was one of the chief sponsors of the nation’s first charter school law, a legislative victory that presaged the expansion of charters across the country.

Today, there are about 5,700 charters in operation in the United States, according to the Center for Education Reform. Reichgott Junge, a Democrat, has written an account of her experience trying to marshal support for the charter school measure, published by the Charter Schools Development Corporation and Beaver’s Pond Press, to be released next month. The book is titled “Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story,” a reference to one Minnesota lawmaker’s assessment of the proposal’s chances. The book’s release is meant to coincide with National Charter Schools Week, next month, which marks the 20th anniversary of charters.

Reichgott Junge’s account is full of details that are likely to interest charter historians. It offers a wealth of correspondence and behind-the-scenes descriptions of the drafting of the Minnesota legislation and the political negotiation that led to it becoming law, as well as a sketch of the evolution of charters, post-Minnesota.

Part of Reichgott Junge’s motivation in writing the book, she explained in a recent interview, was to squash what she sees as myths about the origins of charter schools. Among those fallacies: that charters born of a Republican-driven agenda, or that they were the creation of “ultra-left liberals,” as she puts it.

At the time she sponsored the measure, Reichgott Junge described herself as a “union-endorsed DFLer,” referring to her state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. The initial push for charter schools in Minnesota was bipartisan, she said, and transcended ideological definitions. In drafting the legislation, she and other lawmakers were influenced by the ideas of longtime teachers’ union leader Al Shanker, who in the late 1980s had floated the idea of independent schools, largely free of district oversight, as a way to promote education innovation. Those schools, Shanker suggested, could be guided by teams of teachers.

Education advocate and one-time journalist Ted Kolderie, who saw charters’ potential to get around the “exclusive franchise in public education,” had a big hand in influencing the legislation, said Reichgott Junge, who is now vice president and chief advancement officer of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. The measure was eventually signed into law as part of an omnibus bill by Arne H. Carlson, a Republican.

As described in a brief June 5, 1991, story in Education Week the measure authorized the creation of “charter” or “outcome based” schools that were to be “largely independent of day-to-day school-district control.” Those schools would have to be sponsored or authorized by a local school board and established by one or more licensed teachers, with the classroom teachers required to have valid licenses.

Reichgott Junge’s union-endorsed status did not last long. She says that unions, upset over her backing of the charter legislation, did not support her 1992 re-election campaign, though they did back her in later state elections. The charter blowback swept through again in 2006, says Reichgott Junge, who believes lack of union support hurt her during an unsuccessful run for Congress.

Today, Reichgott Junge believes backers of charter schools need to strike a balance between holding them to high standards—which means shutting down poor-performers—and giving them the freedom to be bold.

She says that many of the debates over charters today are unnecessarily divisive, and focused on whether charters are outperforming traditional public schools.

It’s a discussion “stalled in delayed adolescence,” writes Reichgott Junge. She describes the future challenges facing charters this way:

We need to create a different conversation. Chartering is not about a particular kind of school. It is not about the success or failure of any one learning strategy. It is a process, not an end in itself. It is about creating new opportunities for children and stimulating the larger public education system to do the same. ... In successful redesign of government services, asking the right questions is more important than coming up with the perfect solutions. That is what brings stakeholders to 'the next right answer.' Think of the creativity we could generate across the public school sector with robust discussions around these questions."

[Correction: I originally misstated the events connected to the release of Reichgott Junge’s book. The release will coincide with National Charter Schools Week, next month, and it will be available at the National Charter Schools Conference, in Minneapolis, in June.]

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.