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At 25th Anniversary Mark, Author of First Charter School Law Reflects on Movement

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Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of the first charter school law in the country.

Ember Reichgott Junge is the former Democratic state senator who authored the charter school legislation, which was signed into law in Minnesota on June 4th.

The charter movement has since expanded to include 43 states plus the District of Columbia, and over 2.5 million students—or about 5 percent of the total K-12 public student population.

I went to Minnesota to speak with Reichgott Junge for a special series on the charter anniversary for Education Week, which is coming out on Wednesday. I asked Reichgott Junge for her thoughts on how charter schools have evolved over the last 25 years. Much of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, focused on innovation. 

Q. When you sponsored the first charter school law, I know innovation was a very big part of why you did that. Have charter schools lived up to their promise to help innovate in public education. In what ways have they succeeded and what ways have they maybe fallen short?

A. The two core values, the fundamental values of chartering were innovation and autonomy. For the most part, the laws have allowed that to occur. Over the country, some states have limited that, unfortunately. With regard to innovation, I think we can do more, and we should be doing more in the sector. It doesn't necessarily have to be something like a year-round school, I'm looking more towards the innovation of personalized learning, of project-based learning, of what I call the 21st century learning.

Chartering provides the autonomy for that to occur. That doesn't mean that it can't occur in district schools; it does. I see that there's a way for both the district and charter sectors to learn from each other on innovation. We haven't done that very much. I believe there is much more to be done in innovation. I believe there is much more that both sectors can do, and we need to be focused on that for the future.

Q. Why do you think there hasn't been more done in terms of innovation in the chartering sector up until this point?

A. Let me give you an example from a charter school I worked with personally. We applied for the federal funding startup grant for a very innovative school. The response to us was that we didn't have data to support the innovation we were trying to create. You see, you can't have data for something that hasn't [been] established yet. We knew that in other contexts it worked.

When you have the old rules coming down on those trying to innovate, it creates a real conflict. We've got to be able to allow teachers and educators the freedom to experiment, the freedom to innovate, the freedom to try new things. If we do that, sometimes they might fail, but that's OK, we learn from it and we figure out something new, a new strategy for learning. We don't allow that in the education space.

Q. It is a common criticism in the charter sector that a lot of charter schools don't look that different from traditional district schools. Kids are still divided in the classes, they go to school for a certain amount of time, a teacher lectures a class with 20 students. Can that model be changed much more than it already has been or do you foresee innovation that looks drastically different from that? 

A. There's two levels of innovation. There's one, there's meeting the needs of the child that doesn't exist in another school in that area. That's critically important, a critical fundamental and there's the opportunity for the chartering law to allow spinoffs, to allow new and different schools to emerge, new schools to try new ideas.

As long as we have the law of chartering, we have the basis for innovation. Now it's up to the leaders. Now it's up to those entrepreneurial leaders who are trained, who want to do this to make the innovation happen. 

The chartering law doesn't create the innovation itself, it creates the opportunity for innovation for the right leaders.

Q. How is charter schooling different today than your original vision? Is it playing out mostly how you thought it would play out? 

A. I think we missed a couple of things in our original vision. We missed, first of all, that we needed to pay more attention to the authorizers or sponsors and to make sure they were well trained and to understand their role better. Not only are they compliance oriented, which they should be to hold the charter schools accountable, but they also need to be supportive in the sense of helping the school to be creative. To find those innovative solutions to meet their benchmarks in new and different ways.

We don't always see that. We see some authorizers just checking off the boxes without a lot of support. We also need to train the charter school boards. The charter schools' boards of directors sometimes are not well trained. They are not holding the school accountable; that's important to improve that. You'll see more and more of that being done around the country.

I think that as far as the sector today, we didn't imagine the need for startup funding or facilities funding. A number of schools are not provided those funds in their states. That is a problem. We just thought that they could do more with less. Unfortunately charters are receiving about on average 70 percent of what the district schools are receiving. That's just too big of a gap.

On the bigger picture of it, I don't think I expected as many networks and our management companies in chartering. I think many of them have been very helpful and very productive. Some have not been so helpful. I don't want anyone to think that there is only one sector in chartering. There's room for everyone. I just want them to succeed. If they are succeeding, they are getting results, then that's fine.

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Photo: Former Minnesota Democratic State Senator, Ember Reichgott Junge. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber for Education Week

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