School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Power of Ideas

By Ronald A. Wolk — August 12, 2005 3 min read
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A foundation official once said to me, “Ideas are a dime a dozen; we try to make grants to the people who can make an idea a reality.” Clearly both are needed—good ideas and the can-do people who make them happen.

Ray Budde, who had a “new” idea three decades ago, died this past June at age 82. A teacher, principal, and university faculty member in Massachusetts, Budde was not a mover and shaker, or even well-known in his field. But in 1974, he published a paper on restructuring school districts in which he floated the idea of “education by charter,” and the idea of charter schools was born—or, more accurately, stillborn. It sank like a stone into a sea of silence.

Fourteen years later, as the school reform movement was gaining momentum, Budde resuscitated his idea in a book, Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts. He proposed that school boards give groups of teachers charters to transform existing schools into autonomous entities that they would operate themselves.

For a while, Budde’s idea once again seemed to have passed unnoticed. Then that spring, Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers, cited Budde’s idea in a speech at the National Press Club. In July 1988, he devoted two entries of his New York Times column (“Where We Stand”) to the potential of charter schools.

The idea took root in Minnesota. The Minneapolis Foundation invited Shanker to discuss his proposal at a local seminar, and a couple of state legislators were so impressed that they introduced a chartering bill several months later. Given that new ideas tend to scare most people, it’s not surprising that the bill was defeated twice. But in 1991, Minnesota adopted the nation’s first charter school law.

That was a profoundly important event. For the first time in the United States, a government delegated to individuals and private organizations the right to establish publicly funded schools. Many folks are still scared of charters and are vigorously resisting them, but today, 40 states and the District of Columbia have such laws.

There is at least a dollop of irony in the fact that Shanker was instrumental in making Budde’s idea a reality. Today, the AFT views charter schools as Public Enemy Number 2, beat only by vouchers. But at its convention in 1988, the union endorsed the possibility of helping create charter schools. By 1994, Shanker was having second thoughts and speaking out about the dangers of charters. Letting people do their own thing may be creative, he warned, but it doesn’t guarantee quality. A system of very different charter schools would be a chaotic nonsystem, he cautioned, unworkable in a highly mobile society.

But one of Shanker’s great strengths was his open- mindedness, and by the end of that year, he wrote in his column: “What we really need ... are statewide curriculum frameworks and statewide assessment systems. Then students and teachers in every school will know what kids are responsible for learning and whether or not they have learned it. And we should add statewide incentive systems that link getting into college or getting a job with achievement in high school. Once those things are in place, why limit charter schools to five or 10 or a hundred? Why shouldn’t every school be a charter and enjoy the kind of autonomy now being offered to only a few?”

A standards-based accountability system is now in place in this country, but, ironically, it is so comprehensive, detailed, and restrictive that it virtually restrains charter schools from taking risks. Budde and Shanker recognized that American education is in trouble because it consistently and successfully resists significant change. They believed that the system could only succeed by embracing new ideas and encouraging innovation. They supported chartering as one way of doing just that.

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