To note; again, not hugely comprehensive but a look at what the basic history is of charter schools. I think the history can best be summed up by saying the charter schools idea started as one thing and spread, like cracks on a windshield, in all directions. This is not to say that there are not some charters that are innovative. (I still need to do research to see if I can find even one charter that reflects the earliest thinking.)
Like NCLB, where we have 50 different tests and no real way to prove how American students are doing as a whole, there is charter law in 41 states and the District of Columbia and every single law is different, the numbers of allowed charters is different, the accountability is different and yet, the movement grows. When I get to the Landscape Today, I have some thoughts on why that is (and it's not because charters do well).
History of Charter Schools
Most sources credit Ray Budde, a professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for thinking up the idea of charters and public education champion and president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, for expanding on it. However, their ideas of what a charter school should be and what the reality is 20 years later, are quite different.
Their idea was an public school that was autonomous of the regular public school system (and without tuition, religion or student selection) that could operate on outcomes and not on a checklist out of a teaching notebook. Both Professor Budde and Mr. Shanker were thinking about how to allow TEACHERS to innovate, both in teaching and curriculum in exchange for accountability for students' academic outcomes.
In terms of a timeline, it went something like this. Professor Budde wrote a paper, "Education by Charter" in 1974. It received little interest. From an article Mr. Budde wrote in 1996 for the Phi Delta Kappan,
In this book I proposed that teams of teachers could be "chartered" directly by a school board for a period of three to five years. No one - not the superintendent or the principal or any central office supervisors - would stand between the school board and the teachers when it came to matters of instruction. As in my first exploration of the idea, my focus was on chartering departments or programs. No mention was made of the idea of chartering whole schools.
Recently someone asked me how I felt about the "charter schools movement." Over the past four years I have experienced a rather gradual change in my feelings and response. "This is not what I originally had in mind" has changed to "There are more powerful dynamics at work in creating a whole new school than there are in simply restructuring a department or starting a new program." My own changed attitude stems from the realization that, with state after state passing special charter schools legislation, we now have a rapidly expanding charter school movement that is challenging the traditional form of organization of the local school district.
What is quite interesting is that Professor Budde's number one goal was "to give teachers responsibility for and control over instruction." Number two? "Insure that pupils assume responsibility for their own learning and beahvior and that they acquire the attitudes and skills to become lifelong learners."
Then in 1983, A Nation at Risk, was published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a group created by President Reagan. It became widely quoted because it spoke to the notion that public education in the U.S. was in decline. (In some quarters it is considered deeply flawed due to its premise that student achievement had been in steady decline and that we were not going to be able to compete globally.)
In early 1988, Professor Budde's paper/book got more widely read.
Then, twenty years ago this month, Mr. Shanker proposed this idea of autonomous schools being created/lead by teachers in a speech to the National Press Club. The idea was about experimenting with new ways of teaching to create innovative ideas that would work in other schools. He went on to offer a resolution for charter schools at the AFT's national convention in 1988. His argument was that "top-down" management was not the way to create innovation and create the best teaching. (And his hope, because of his union affiliation, was that this kind of chartering would create better and more interesting professional opportunities for teachers.)
The irony seems to be that, at first, charters were a liberal cause and conservatives rejected them believing that everything we needed to know about education, we already knew. As we see from today's landscape, that is largely reversed (although the issue of charter schools cannot simply be seen as a liberal versus conservative difference).
Here's Shanker's view (from Wikipedia):
In Shanker’s vision, small groups of teachers and parents would submit research-based proposals outlining plans to educate kids in innovative ways. A panel consisting of the local school board and teachers’ union officials would review proposals. Once given a “charter,” a term first used by the Massachusetts educator Ray Budde, a school would be left alone for a period of five to 10 years. Schools would be freed from certain collective bargaining provisions; for example, class-size limitations might be waived to merge two classes and allow team-teaching. Shanker’s core notion was to tap into teacher expertise to try new things. Building on the practices at the Saturn auto plant in Nashville, Tenn., he envisioned teams of teachers making suggestions on how best to accomplish the job at hand.
However, both Budde and Shanker could see, that over time, their ideas did not follow the path they had wanted. In particular, Shanker felt the whole thing was "hijacked" by conservatives and would lead to a private-school voucher plan which would undermine unions.
Then in 1991, the Minnesota Legislature passed the first charter school law in the country. By 1995, 19 states had charter law. By 2009 41 states (and D.C.) had charter law. There were almost 3,000 charter schools by 2004 but more than one-third of those had been open three years or less and more than 400 had gone out of business between 1991-2004 (US Department of Education).
I was fortunate enough to find a great paper written in 2008, The Grinding Battle with Circumstance; Charter Schools and the Potential of School-Based Collective Bargaining, by former Columbia University professor Jonathan Gyurko (now at a firm, Leeds Equity Partners, "Investors in the Knowledge Industry"). (And before anyone jumps in about this group, I can only say that his research and this paper are informed reading.)
Mr. Gyurko points to three key events that changed the ideas around charter schools.
The first was John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (1990), described as “the most important intervention into the debate about public schools and marketplace mechanisms since Milton Friedman’s initial voucher proposal” (Fruchter 2007). Chubb and Moe argue for the benefits of choice and competition, concluding with a set of sweeping recommendations to restructure public education on market principles. Although Chubb and Moe proposed a voucher-based and largely unregulated system of schooling, many similarities, particularly in regard to school autonomy, existed between their recommendations and the charter school concept. As a result, their ideas and metaphors supplied education reformers, including supporters of the budding charter movement, with a theoretical context and market orientation (Henig 1994).
The second event was Minnesota’s 1991 passage of the nation’s first charter school law. Shanker advised Minnesota’s earliest charter advocates, and the state’s progressive charter law was passed with bi-partisan support (Nathan 1996). But in a break with Shanker’s thinking, the law constituted charters as independent educational corporations autonomous from the school district and exempt from pre-existing collective bargaining agreements.
The loss of collective bargaining rights unless reactivated by union organizing was a clear setback to the teacher union movement, birthed just thirty years prior. Although Minnesota’s law requires teachers to constitute a majority of the school’s board of trustees, concerns were raised by labor leaders about the impact of less concentrated unionization on unions’ ability to pursue political, economic, and social goals. Indeed, as charter laws rolled-out across the country, political conservatives were “quite open about the fact that that charter school laws provided a critical end-run around teacher unions” (Kahlenberg, 2007).
The third event was the launch in 1991 of Edison Schools, an education management company that promised to “transform American education” (Wilson 2006). Although Edison planned to open a nationwide chain of private schools, the “difficulty of raising the required billions of dollars” turned Edison towards management of public schools under contract with a district. Opening and managing charter schools provided Edison and other companies like it with additional business opportunities. Although the education sector is replete of for-profit textbook publishers, service vendors and the like, Shanker worried that “for-profit companies [performing education’s core functions] would care more about looking after their shareholders than educating children,” or even worse would become a “gimmick” for “hucksters” (Kahlenberg 2007).
To note, Chubb was a founding partner of Edison Schools and Terry Moe is a professor of political science at Stanford University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution (a noted conservative think tank).
I will draw from this paper in other parts of the series as it seems to have a wealth of information that will be useful for our discussion. Check out the chart on page 16 that lines up many analyses of charter versus regular public schools.
During his presidency, President Clinton signed into law charter school legislation. In fact, this year President Clinton received the first-ever lifetime achievement aware from the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
George W. Bush also pushed the charter school movement along. (He would also have been happy with wide-spread vouchers even to religious schools.)
And now we have President Obama, who with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, are firmly in the mindset of supporting charters. (There's even a Barack Obama charter school in LA.)