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How Did Charter Schools Spread?

I'm away this week, but I'm happy to report that author and veteran educator Sarah Tantillo has graciously agreed to step in. Sarah works as a consultant at The Literacy Cookbook after a career as a New Jersey high school teacher. She'll be sharing some thoughts and reflections on her forthcoming book, Hit the Drum: An Insider's Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement. This week, she'll be exploring why charter schooling took off, why some charter schools are lousy, and why chartering is one reform that's stuck around. 

The first charter school legislation passed in Minnesota in 1991. Five years later, nearly two dozen other states had joined the fray. By 2017, more than 6,900 charter schools were operating in 44 states plus the District of Columbia, serving 3.2 million childrenHow did that happen?

First, the concept had prominent bipartisan support. While leading the creation of Time For Results, the National Governors Association's 1986 response to A Nation at Risk, key state governors such as Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Bill Clinton became captivated by two ideas: 1) more public school choice and 2) less regulation in exchange for better results.

In 1990, Ted Kolderie (often called "the godfather of the charter school movement") planted an important seed in this policy environment, drafting a policy paper which argued that chartering could "withdraw the exclusive franchise" that our educational system had perpetuated. For the chartering movement, this became a fundamental belief: that the monopoly of the American public educational system needed to be broken up. "We are not serious about improvement if we do not withdraw the exclusive franchise," Kolderie concluded. One of the first people to see this paper and seize upon it for inspiration—before the first charter school law passed—was Gov. Bill Clinton, who took it with him on the presidential campaign trail and began to promote chartering as a "New Democratic Idea."

As president, Clinton used the bully pulpit to champion charters. He and his colleagues saw public school choice as a way to improve public schooling. His newly appointed secretary of education, South Carolina Gov. Richard W. Riley, who'd chaired the "Time for Results" Task Force on Readiness, asked Jon Schnur (special assistant to the deputy secretary of education) to call Ember Reichgott Junge, the sponsor of Minnesota's law, and Joe Nathan, a leading policy analyst for "Time for Results," to see what they could do to help the charter movement.

Federal legislation also advanced the cause. Another Minnesotan, Jon Schroeder, director of policy development for Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., inserted a much-needed piece of the puzzle. Schroeder and Durenberger realized that federal startup funding could do more than just help charter school founders in Minnesota: It could also raise visibility of the charter idea in Congress and in other states. And it could build support for charter laws in states that were considering legislation, but needed an extra incentive to pass laws and help grow the charter movement nationally.

With this rationale, Schroeder drafted the "Public School Redefinition Act"—introduced by Durenberger in the early fall of 1991—to create a new federal startup grant program for charter schools. The legislation proposed authorizing $50 million per year. The following year, Durenberger reintroduced this legislation with a Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. The bill had bipartisan co-sponsorship in the House, as well.

Clinton's administration made Durenberger's bill part of its comprehensive legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This was a huge political advantage. The charter grant legislation passed with the overall ESEA legislation in the fall of 1994.

Although the legislation included just $6 million for the program's first year, it recognized and addressed a key barrier to charter school development and helped expand awareness and support for the charter movement nationally. (And the program continued to grow. By 2018, more than $4 billion had been allocated to states and charter schools across the country under the federal charter school program.)

Along with this federal incentive, grassroots stakeholders pushed the idea out across the country. Ted Kolderie's "Withdrawing the Exclusive Franchise" paper became required reading for anyone contemplating education reform. For many years, Kolderie was a key leader—along with Joe Nathan, Ember Reichgott Junge, Howard Fuller, Jeanne Allen, Yvonne Chan, and others—in spreading the idea of chartering, sending out memos to update state-based reformers. From 1992 through 1996, Kolderie told me that he shared the idea—either in person or on the phone—to somewhere between 25 and 30 states.

Decades later, Kolderie remarked that one of the striking things about chartering legislation was that "in Minnesota and everywhere, it was just automatically, instinctively opposed by all of the associations representing the organized elements of K-12." From that standpoint, "The chartering idea simply sold itself. That's the only way you can explain how, in state after state after state, it was enacted as simply a state capital initiative with no grassroots support, no basic media support, no big-name support, none of the things you usually associate with successful legislative initiatives." He added, "How else could you explain the passage of something that violates all of state capital conventional political reality?" 

Governors and legislators across the country knew that something needed to be done to improve public education, and they realized that charters—being more palatable than publicly funded private school vouchers—could be a valuable part of the solution. Because charters had bipartisan support from the beginning, they spread more rapidly than other reforms.

Sarah Tantillo

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