Paying homage to charter schools' early trailblazers

This is the first in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno), Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published this fall by Harvard Education Press. Read the other essays here, here, here, and here.

Next month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the enactment of America’s first charter school law, which Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson signed on June 4, 1991. This statute birthed a sector that has become not just a source of new schools for kids who need them, but also a structural reform of public education’s governance and delivery systems. It’s as close as K–12 schooling has come to what Clayton Christenson calls “disruptive innovation.”

This is worth celebrating—and charter advocates across the country have planned many festivities and events. But as we applaud this movement and the bold Minnesota lawmakers who launched it, let’s also recall what led up to it and, one might say, made it almost inevitable.

The onset of chartering was no lightning bolt. This audacious innovation had multiple ancestors and antecedents. School choice has colonial roots and was supported by early theorists such as John Stuart Mill. But it got a big boost in 1962, when Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, which described the potential of market forces to strengthen educational quality, efficiency, and productivity. Friedman favored a competitive, private-sector model and did not think that government should deliver education directly. Instead it would furnish needy families with vouchers that could be redeemed for education at any state-approved school. Friedman expected market forces to cause bad schools to improve or close, motivate decent schools to get better, and invite people to open new ones.

Four years after Friedman’s book, the eminent sociologist James Coleman rocked the education world (and more or less contradicted the central premise of LBJ’s year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act) by showing that there is no reliable relationship between what goes into a school by way of funding, programs and rules and what comes out by way of learning. This forms the backdrop to the past half-century of what we now know as “standards-based reform,” which includes the crucial charter school concept of holding a school accountable for its results (measured, for better and worse, primarily by test scores).

Along came A Nation at Risk, jarring the country with news that its K–12 system wasn’t working nearly well enough. Its release was followed by a clutch of governors willing to try new approaches to producing stronger educational outcomes, including giving far greater freedom to schools that did so. “Governors are ready for some old-fashioned horse-trading,'' declared then-Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander. ''We'll regulate less if schools and school districts will produce better results.''

At the same time, frustration was building with the efficiency and effectiveness of myriad governmental services as traditionally delivered. We were witnessing a new impulse to “reinvent government” by outsourcing some of its work to others who, working independently, might do it better and perhaps more economically.

In 1974, Ray Budde (a school teacher, principal, and eventual University of Massachusetts faculty member) had published a paper that described a form of chartering. His concept was focused within districts and on existing schools and designed to give teachers a key role in creating new programs and departments within them. Budde’s initial paper got little response, but he stuck with the idea. After A Nation At Risk and myriad other studies and reports called for sweeping K–12 reforms, he tried again with a 1988 treatise called Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts. This one caught the eye of the late Al Shanker, who cited it in an influential speech at the National Press Club the same year (as well as in a later New York Times column, “A Charter for Change”).

Shanker expanded Budde’s focus, still seeing chartering as a way to foster teacher professionalism by allowing them to start new schools. He sought to create a quasi-marketplace in which “a school system might charter schools distinctly different in their approach to learning. Parents could choose which charter school to send their children to, thus fostering competition.”

These ideas reached Minnesota, where they caught the attention of a group of educators and policy innovators including Joe Nathan, Ted Kolderie, Curtis Johnson, and State Senator Ember Reichgott, a Democrat who would introduce and help pass that state’s pathbreaking charter law. Kolderie and Johnson, under the aegis of the Citizens League, served on a study committee that probed the chartering idea. The League’s December 1988 report, “Chartered Schools = Choices for Educators + Quality for All Students,” became the basis for the bill that Reichgott introduced in January 1989. The report built upon initiatives that had already made Minnesota a pioneer in school choice. One of these was a post-secondary enrollment option permitting eleventh and twelfth graders to take college courses (1985); another was open enrolment, which enabled children to attend any public school of their choice in Minnesota (1987–8).

Reichgott encountered fierce opposition at the outset, led primarily by the two state teacher unions. Her bill twice failed to clear the legislature. The following year, however, she got a boost when the D.C.-based Progressive Policy Institute published “Beyond Choice to New Public Schools: Withdrawing the Exclusive Franchise in Public Education.” Kolderie was its author, and he summarized it this way: “The proposal outlined in this report is designed to introduce the dynamics of choice, competition and innovation into America’s public school system, while at the same time ensuring that new schools serve broad public purposes.”

By 1991, Reichgott had enlisted more legislative allies from both sides of the aisle. She was finally able to pass her plan, enabling GOP governor Arne Carlson to sign the nation’s first charter school law on June 4. Fifteen months later, City Academy opened in St. Paul, and soon after that, California enacted the country’s second charter law.

With so many tributaries, it’s no surprise that the charter stream contains many different life forms. Its origins come from Left and Right, Democrats and Republicans, educators and economists, union leaders and governors, scholars and doers, from long ago and very recently. Just as important, its founders harbored disparate ideas about why it was needed and what it could and ought to do. It’s wrong, therefore, to try to tack a single “origin story” onto the charter phenomenon. In many ways, it was the composite (if not the consummation) of many impulses, the response to many needs, the embodiment of many hopes. Which also makes it messy. More on that to follow.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.