When my charter school bill finally passed the Minnesota legislature in May 1991, I thought the bill was so compromised that a charter school would never happen.
But what I didn’t realize is that the bill unlocked some powerful forces: Parents and teachers wanted the freedom to innovate and provide more opportunity for their kids, and the bill offered a pragmatic, centrist solution to the education debate between private school vouchers and funding the status quo. The public was demanding tradition-shattering change.
Chartering gained momentum quickly after that bill passed — today, 44 states and the District of Columbia have chartering laws. There’s so much that occurred then that I now yearn for today in our state legislatures:
- The issue was bipartisan. The authors of the first bills in Minnesota, California and Colorado were all Democrats. In Minnesota, the bill survived by three votes in the House of Representatives with support from 56 percent of the minority Republicans and 42 percent of the majority Democrats, with a friendly Democratic speaker. That just doesn’t happen today — to our great loss. Innovation arises from the middle, not from the extremes.
- Compromise was not defeat. Without compromise, my chartering bill would not have passed. With so little compromise today among state and federal lawmakers, innovation is stifled and gridlock prevails.
- Education was valued as a federal priority. Today, education is rarely mentioned as a priority at the national level.
- Legislators worked to change the system. Chartering is systemic change; it is not a school. Chartering allows new schools and innovation to happen. Legislators stepped back, removed barriers and let citizens take the lead.
Because there is much to learn from the chartering origins, I’m now leading the National Charter School Founders Library (launched by the National Charter Schools Institute in MIchigan) to capture the unique chartering stories of each state through authentic documents and oral histories of living pioneers. Education Commission of the States has generously contributed primary source materials, and others can do the same by visiting the website: www.charterinstitute.org/library.