The guests opened the discussion by describing
the bi-partisan and public/private cooperative processes that brought
chartering from casual notions to focused research and ultimately to
The bi-partisan initiative came from outside
Chartering is a national story with its roots in
Minnesota, Reichgott Junge said. She acknowledged some of those in the
room that were present at the start. Ted Kolderie was the father of the
charter school movement, she said - "all roads in chartering lead back to
Ted." Dan Loritz played key roles throughout the initial years with his
work on public school choice. Dana Schroeder wrote about chartering in
1992 as a staff member at the Citizens League, and assisted Ember with the
interviews and research for the book. Dana's husband, Jon Schroeder,
played many critical roles nationally. John Rollwagen chaired the Citizens
League committee that wrote the report that became the template for the
statute. Reichgott Junge noted that the Citizens League report came from
outside both education and government, having been written by business and
civic leaders, most of whom did not have day-to-day involvement in
In a recent column in the Star Tribune,
columnist Lori Sturdevant described the advent of chartering as an example
of bipartisanship in mutual self-interest. The process wasn't
conflict-free. There were, in fact, many conflicts, within and among
parties, between the branches of government, and among interest groups and
all other players. However, the process was also collaborative.
"Currently we have a very divided political
climate, and I'm not sure chartering legislation would pass today,"
Reichgott Junge said. "There is no 'middle' today in policymaking." As she
speaks around the country about the passage of chartering legislation, she
finds that people are surprised to learn that the bill's passage here in
Minnesota was led by DFLers, through DFL majorities in both houses, with a
bipartisan coalition. However, in fact, only a minority of the majority
DFL caucus voted for the bill, so its passage depended on a true
Reichgott Junge added, looking back on the
process, that she learned to be pragmatic about compromise; she learned
that "compromise is not defeat."
Lessons from chartering are relevant for leaders
"For many years I felt the bill that we passed
was a failure because I thought nothing would ever come of it, that it was
watered down too much. But I look at it now and realize that without
compromise, it wouldn't have been passed at all."
The bill was "a pragmatic look for the next
right answer." Without opening the system to charters, the district
schools would have continued to have an "exclusive franchise," without
incentive to respond to parents and families or other outside influences.
Reichgott Junge outlined three ways the
experience with chartering informs the redesign of other public services:
1. A moderate, pragmatic approach led to
compromise. That compromise led to a sustainable system redesign
evolving over twenty years, a redesign supported by 70% of the American
2. The law is the innovation itself, in
that it offers an ongoing incentive for redesign. The law
presents an opportunity for innovation to thrive in the public schools.
3. Chartering is built upon a
performance-based contract. Performance against clear objectives
determines rewards or sanctions. This was a new concept in delivery of
government services at the time.
And she outlined lessons learned through the
chartering experience that are relevant to policy innovation today:
- Ask the right questions. Rather than ask 'who wants
charter schools?' ask instead, 'how can we get better schools
that meet the needs of all the community?'
- Train more legislators to ask those questions. Encourage
- Seek the common ground that can emerge from redesign, even
among different political philosophies. Redesign in one area can often
be applied to others. (For example, the 2011 Lutheran Social Service
initiative called My Life, My Choices, a new way to deliver services for
people with developmental disabilities, took many lessons from
- Recognize that term limits of any kind work against redesign.
With greater turnover in legislative ranks, people try the same things
over and over; with less experience, they rely more on staff, who often
think in terms of what they know and have already created.
- Don't make it personal or try to control the ownership.
Good ideas need a champion to become reality.
The world is full of good ideas, Kolderie
observed, but what many of them lack is a champion. "Ember's role was that
of a champion of this idea, as the political scientists would say. I don't
think chartering would have happened if she hadn't pushed for it hard and
created some conflict."
However, the effort does not stop with the first
law enacted. It has taken 20 years of continued modification to get the
law to its present form.
"It not only took a champion willing to push
hard and willing to create conflict, but it also took someone who didn't
know that it couldn't be done. Reichgott Junge was one of those
people," Kolderie added. "She didn't come from the establishment. She
wasn't an education 'expert.' So she was less susceptible to the
conventional wisdom that chartering could not work, and would never take
Rollwagen added that the Citizens League
recommendation in its report on chartering was, in his mind, so patently
obvious that, "I thought, well, Ember would take this to the legislature
and just get it passed." It proved, however, to be far more difficult. "If
she hadn't been stubborn and pushed it through it wouldn't have happened."
Chartering goes national.
"It was California that in 1992 put the idea in
play nationally," Kolderie said. If it had just been Minnesota touting the
concept, people would have shrugged it off as an outlier, an experiment
from the hinterland. In 1993, six states enacted chartering - that, too,
made quite an impression on the collective thinking. Language from
Minnesota's chartering law appeared in a number of other states'
chartering legislation. "Among other things, it got the National Education
Association thinking seriously about what was going on."
Kolderie began writing memos about chartering,
under the masthead of his Public Services Redesign Project and began
building a list of people in other states interested in chartering.
The chartering law itself is merely an enabling
law and does not in fact create schools, Kolderie reminded participants.
In 1994, Senator Durenberger, with help from his policy aide, Jon
Schroeder, got federal startup grants for chartered schools established.
The process of creating charter schools then was truly launched.
Chartering spread rapidly across the country to
about 40 states by the end of the 1990s, in spite of the conventional
interests opposing them and the dire predictions of all the analysts who
said it couldn't be done. Across the country there grew interesting
stories for the annals of political science that often include suspenseful
scenes with the results coming down to the last day of the session and
heroic efforts of those who championed the measures.
National organizations could pull chartering off
Kolderie recalled a meeting in 1996 with a
funder that was interested in supporting the Charter Friends National
Network, then a locally based assistance network. But a few years after
that, the nature of the movement significantly changed. "A consultant said
to me there were too many 'little people' in the movement; that it was
going to grow only if we get the 'heavy hitters' in."
In 2005, the national interests held a large
meeting on Mackinac Island, and repositioned chartering with a report,
Renewing the Compact. "I think they made one of the most basic
mistakes you can make in policy," Kolderie said, "which is to accept your
"The opponents tried to link the word 'charter'
with student learning. We've tried to draw the distinction from the
beginning: charters don't 'learn' kids. A charter is a permission to start
a school, as a fishing license is permission to fish; the license doesn't
catch the fish."
Unfortunately the currently dominant leadership
in the major national organizations - the National Alliance for Public
Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers
- has bought into this idea. "Once you buy into this you are compelled to
show that chartering, as a way of simply creating a school, alone leads to
improvement," Kolderie cautioned. Rather, Kolderie sees chartering
primarily as a process of system change, not as a particular type
of school that automatically results in "better" learning.
"And since 'better' means high scores, you are
compelled to produce schools that generate high scores. So you see a
narrowing of what's defined as achievement, while at the same time the
need to expand learning is growing." Thus, he contends, the trap is set.
It's good to have this debate Kolderie said, and
he welcomes it, but he is troubled by a "Puritan insistence by some folks
that they're so absolutely right that you end up dealing with people whose
minds are not open."
Most successful systems are open systems and
therefore innovative, Kolderie added. Chartering opened the traditional
K-12 system to innovation. Education needs to be open to new forms of
schools and new forms of teaching. These new approaches will increasingly
involve digital electronics, Kolderie argued, and like most innovations
they will not be perfect at the start. "There will be failures, and we
need to be able to tolerate a certain number of failures. And we need to
be open to new and unfamiliar concepts of quality." Otherwise, he asserts,
you get trapped in a situation where you judge the new developments by the
There is an important virtue in school autonomy.
Chartering has picked up many of the traditional
school district traits, Kolderie observed. In fact, most chartered schools
work today like traditional district schools and have the same problems.
One of the national debates is whether to create networks of chartered
schools, essentially large non-governmental districts.
There is an important virtue in a school's being
autonomous, Kolderie said, in its being responsible to its own students
and able to respond quickly to needs and opportunities. It is important
that the school be able to make, by itself, the changes needed to address
problems that appear. Among the national leadership, the independent
charter schools are often derided as 'mom and pop' schools. Kolderie
thinks this is a serious mistake.
One important coming development involves the
'common core' standards. Now, assessments are being developed, aligned to
these standards. Next, there will be the effort to teach teachers to teach
to these standards. No one knows how quickly that will be successful, or
how motivated the students will be. Learning is, after all, a voluntary
activity, Kolderie said: It is common to hear people talk about schools
'delivering education' but in reality young people decide whether or not
Kolderie added that parent choice has little
role in the thinking of the national groups today. The parents have
concepts of success and achievement for their children that are broader
than those defined in the 'common core' standards; they have a broader
concept of what a good school should be. Yet the original idea of charter
schools was to try new and broader concepts of learning.
Chartering has been undertaken so that
individuals, whether teachers, parents or even kids, to some extent, in
small areas or large, could innovate on their own in education, without
someone at the higher level telling them what to do. Regrettably, Kolderie
asserts, the national organization supporting chartering now is going in
exactly the opposite way by supporting uniformity, to the extent that the
only thing that matters now are test scores.