Freedom School

Teacher Milo Cutter blazed the trail for a radical idea.

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Ten years ago, Milo Cutter was a 40-year-old social studies teacher working at an alternative high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. The school served 125 students, most of them poor Hispanics. Yet even at that small size, students were slipping through the cracks. "Too many of them felt as if they didn't belong there," Cutter recalls. The dropout rate was high-much too high, she believed, for a school specifically designed for at-risk teens. Something wasn't working. There must be another way, she thought, an alternative to the alternative.

It wasn't long before Cutter was creating just such a school, one that would herald a dramatic change in public education. In 1991, Minnesota legislators passed a law that allowed for the creation of eight so-called charter schools-schools that would be publicly funded but freed from most state and local regulations. Under the law, licensed teachers could submit proposals for new schools to local districts. Districts, in turn, could issue "charters," agreements that, upon approval by the state board of education, granted the teachers semi-autonomy in exchange for guarantees of academic performance.

Cutter quickly saw the law as an opportunity to do something different. She and several colleagues spent months drafting a proposal for a charter school they dubbed City Academy. "We wanted a school," Cutter says, "where the number one priority would be the students. We were hoping for the ultimate in student focus." The school would be located in one of St. Paul's poorest neighborhoods, and it would serve 30 students who had either dropped out of their regular schools or been kicked out.

The proposal didn't endear Cutter and the others to the leaders of the state and local teachers' unions. The Minnesota Education Association had fought the new law, calling charters "a cruel hoax." And the local teachers' union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, opposed the proposal for City Academy. Still, in April 1992, the school won approval from the St. Paul school board. Two months later, the state board approved the City Academy charter, and, on September 7, the nation's first charter school opened its doors.

Today, City Academy is a thriving school with about 100 students, and Cutter is considered a pioneer of the charter school movement-though she laughs at the description. "That sounds like someone going across the prairie in a covered wagon," she says. "I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time."

"Milo Cutter is very modest, very self-effacing," says Joe Nathan, a longtime charter school advocate and director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. "When you meet her, she's quiet and demure. She's also one of the most tenacious people I've ever met. She thinks very carefully about her priorities, and her priorities are serving those kids."

Indeed, City Academy is in many ways a model charter school, where passionate teachers work year- round to change the lives of students who have failed elsewhere. Housed in a neighborhood recreation center, the school is, according to Nathan, "a living example of the power of love, community, creativity, and very hard work." Cutter and 13 others operate City Academy cooperatively- without a principal-meeting once a week to discuss administrative and policy decisions. "It's a very autonomous place," says Cutter. Because teachers run the school, they can act quickly to meet the needs of the students, without bureaucratic delays. In fact, the school has no office staff whatsoever. "Everyone who works here is directly involved with the kids," she says.

In just eight years, charter schools have become a permanent fixture of the nation's education landscape. At last count, there were about 1,200 such schools in dozens of states, with several hundred more scheduled to open in September. The National Education Association, once a staunch opponent of charters, now embraces them through its Charter Schools Initiative, a five-year effort involving a handful of NEA-sponsored charters around the country. (Cutter serves as an adviser to the initiative.) President Clinton likes charter schools so much that he has called for 3,000 new ones by the year 2000.

The popularity of charter schools reflects in part the growing acceptance of school choice in the '90s. Though still controversial, voucher programs to help parents send children to private school are getting test runs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida. The charter school concept, meanwhile, has been embraced as a truly bipartisan school reform. As writer James Traub pointed out recently in the New York Times, "Both progressives and traditionalists can create schools of their own, leaving agnostics free to believe in the wisdom of letting a hundred flowers bloom. Liberals like choice; free-market conservatives like vouchers-and, as it turns out, both have found they can live with charters."

"It was a concept whose time truly had come," says Jeanne Allen, president of the conservative Center for Education Reform and a strong charter school advocate. "And the reason they have taken off is because they make so much sense to so many people."

But do they work? It's too soon to say, although proponents cite anecdotal evidence that some charter schools are outperforming comparable traditional schools. Last year, students at the Charter School of Wilmington, Delaware, had the highest average SAT scores of any public school in the state.

But other charters haven't lived up to their promises, and their contracts have been canceled. Some of the worst charters, critics say, can be found in the two states with the most free-wheeling charter school laws: Arizona and Michigan. "In scores of charters" in those states, noted a recent cover story in U.S. News & World Report, "curricula and teaching are weak, buildings are substandard, and financial abuses are surprisingly prevalent."

Whatever the failings of individual charter schools, the movement has challenged longheld traditions of education. Some states permit noneducators-parents, community groups, local social service agencies, or even for-profit companies-to open charters. Many of these schools buck the notion of the common school, tailoring their curricula-and marketing their services-to specific groups of students. Schools have opened to serve dropouts, kids with learning disabilities, and high-achieving science and math students.

"Charter schools," says Nathan, "tap into the idea that people ought to be able to carry out their own dreams. The charter school movement responds to that deep need-the idea that we can do better. Charter schools are about hope, about people believing they can make a difference."

People like Milo Cutter. Looking back on her experience creating a school from scratch, she says, with characteristic modesty, "It just seemed like the right thing to do."

Vol. 11, Issue 1, Pages 38-39

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Freedom School
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