When my charter school bill finally passed the Minnesota legislature in May 1991, I was devastated. The bill was so compromised I thought a charter school would never happen. The final bill didn’t create alternate sponsors—it required both the local school district and the state board of education to approve the charter application. Double approval?
What I didn’t realize then is that we unlocked some powerful forces. Parents and teachers wanted the freedom to innovate and provide more opportunity for their kids. We offered a pragmatic, centrist solution to the education debate of the day between private school vouchers offered by President George H. W. Bush and funding the status quo offered by House Democrats. The public was demanding “tradition-shattering change.” Candidate Bill Clinton seized the day. In his debate in October 1992, he threw his support behind chartering when there was only one charter school open in Minnesota. Chartering was here to stay.
I share the emotional journey as author of the first charter school law in my book, “Zero Chance of Passage, The Pioneering Charter School Story.” There’s so much that occurred back then that I now yearn for today:
- Chartering 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 it, 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. Where is education in the list of national priorities today? Nowhere to be found.
- Legislators had courage to change the system. Chartering is system 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.
There is much to learn from the chartering origins just 28 years ago. Ideas matter and they must live on. That’s why I’m now leading the National Charter Schools Founders Library, launched by the National Charter Schools Institute to capture the unique chartering stories of each state through authentic documents and oral histories of living pioneers. You can help advance the library by sharing primary source materials or with your gift.
My personal mission is to educate the next generation of chartering leaders about the origins, myths, and message. High-level values messaging tells the chartering story best: Chartering offers freedom of choice, opportunity for every child, and accountability of tax dollars. Chartering advocates too often are mired in the weeds of the message of our opponents. And we must be vigilant in our language. How many times have we heard “public and charter schools?” No wonder one-third of Americans think charter schools are private schools! I challenge journalists and colleagues every day to accurately describe public district and public charter schools.
We can further chartering with values messaging, appropriate language, and sharing powerful (two-minute) stories. We will inform the future by knowing our past. In today’s political climate we must redouble our efforts. All of us. It is the power of one…plus one…plus one.
Former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge is author of Minnesota’s 1991 first-in-nation charter school law and the award-winning book, “Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story”. She is an international education policy leader, consultant, and spokesperson for charter public schools having presented in 35 states, Guam, Canada and India. She was founding board member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, founding board chair of Level Up Academy, a Minnesota charter school, and is current board member of Charter Schools Development Corporation. She was inducted into the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame in 2008, and received the Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award from Democrats for Education Reform in 2012.