Reclaiming the origins of charter schools: reflections for today’s governing leaders

By Ember Reichgott Junge

The nation’s charter schools just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first chartered public school in St. Paul, Minn. Today chartered schools serve more than 2.3 million students in over 6,000 chartered schools in 42 states and District of Columbia, with 1,000,000 names of students on waiting lists. Chartering is supported by two-thirds of the American public and every presidential candidate since President Bill Clinton.

How did chartering move from “zero chance of passage” according to one Minnesota lawmaker, to today? What sustained chartering as a major redesign of public education for over twenty years? 

Chartering was a bipartisan initiative championed by Democratic lawmakers. It came from the middle of the political spectrum and originated from civic leaders from outside the political system. Would chartering pass today? Probably not—there isn’t a political middle anymore.  

Chartering came from compromise. As the legislator who authored the law, I was devastated by the compromise because I thought a charter school would never happen. Years later, I realized that without compromise, the bill wouldn’t be law today. Compromise is not defeat. It is the heart and soul of governing. Compromise sustains change over the test of time. 

Sometimes the best thing policymakers can do is step back, remove barriers and let citizens take the lead. Chartering is about granting permission to parents and teachers—groups other than a school district—to deliver public education. In return for autonomy, school leaders commit to accountability in their performance contract. No performance? The school can be closed. Teachers trade regulation for results, bureaucracy for accountability. Today, these redesign principles fundamental to chartering have been applied to a wide range of public services—even entire state agencies. 

Chartering is about more choices for students and teachers. Most people don’t realize that Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, was one of the first to propose a charter school back in 1988. He wanted to professionalize teaching and give teachers autonomy to lead. Today, the Minnesota union leaders who vigorously opposed chartering 20 years ago are coming full circle to Shanker’s vision. These union leaders sit on the board of the first union-initiated charter school authorizer in the country. 

Chartered schools exploded onto the national stage as a centrist public school choice alternative between private school vouchers and the status quo. The public was demanding change for a public education system in crisis. There was public urgency in 1992. In election 2012? Not so much. Education was barely mentioned.

Today an average of 5 percent of public school students attend chartered schools. But 100 percent of public school students in those states have the choice. The result? Traditional K-12 districts have responded with new and innovative options and choices as demanded by their parents. Everyone can benefit from chartering.

Today there are outstanding chartered public schools and outstanding district public schools. There are low-performing chartered schools and low-performing district schools. Let’s end the debate about which is better. Let’s focus on what’s working and end what is not. It’s time to work together to improve public education for all.

Former Minnesota state senator Ember Reichgott Junge is author of the first chartered school law in the nation and award-winning book, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story (2012) She is board vice chair of Charter Schools Development Corporation, the book copublisher. The charter school law was a 2000 “Innovations in American Government” Winner from the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. 

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