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In 1991, Minnesota became the first state in the country to allow charter schools. Since then, 41 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit, and more than 2 million children attend charters. Ember Reichgott Junge, one of the original forces behind Minnesota’s charter law, says she is shocked by the growth over the past two decades. As she details in her new book, “Zero Chance of Passage,” the charter school law was a hard fought battle and seemed – at times – unattainable for even one state. The Hechinger Report talked to Reichgott Junge about the charter sector’s past and future.

Ember Reichgott Junge
Ember Reichgott Junge

Question: In the book, you talk a lot about union opposition to this legislation. Obviously, those tensions haven’t disappeared. Have they changed at all from what you experienced? Is there a way to get union buy-in for charter schools?

Answer: One of the three visionaries in the origins of chartering was Al Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who saw chartering as an opportunity for teachers to be the entrepreneurial professionals that they are and that they would have the autonomy they deserve. What I have seen over 20 years in Minnesota is that the unions and the union leaders are coming back full circle to Al Shanker’s vision. The union leaders who vigorously opposed chartering 20 years ago are now actually authorizing charter schools themselves. They often look for applications which really focus on this empowerment of teachers, this vision that Shanker had. I see really a new opportunity here to bring teachers and district schools and charter schools together and find ways that we can support what is working well in public education.

Q: The book also deals with the compromises you had to make. Did those ultimately weaken the legislation?

A: Had we not compromised chartering never would have passed. Maybe another time, but not then. In my view, I thought I had failed. I was devastated. I thought a charter school would never open because only a school board could authorize a charter school. What I’ve learned is that compromise is not defeat. I think there’s a lesson in this for today. There’s just so little compromise going on in today’s political climate and there’s very little bipartisanship. There’s no middle anymore.  It is much more difficult for something like chartering to pass today that it was before. It truly was a bipartisan coalition. In the crucial vote, 42 percent of the majority party – Democrats – voted for it. Fifty-six percent of the minority party voted for it, and it passed by three votes. This just doesn’t happen today where you let a bipartisan coalition pass bills and actually work together to find new and innovative solutions to problems.

The compromise we had to live with was to have just school boards [authorize] charter school. Just as I feared in the first two years, seven of nine applicants in Minnesota for chartering were rejected. The only two that succeeded where the ones that served special populations, like students who had dropped out of school or deaf and hearing impaired. That gave us the support, the evidence to go back to amend the law and improve it and bring in multiple sponsors and authorizers.

Q: The Minnesota state legislature revisited the charter law this year. One of the changes they made was to say that the primary purpose of charters was student achievement and all other purposes, like innovation, were secondary. What do you think about that?

A: I still believe that high performance and innovation go hand in hand. I don’t see one more important than the other in chartering. They both drive chartering. In fact, innovation to me is the fundamental premise of chartering, not just in schools, but in how it is affecting public education in wider arenas. For example, chartering is now being offered for adult education, for pre-k education. As long as a charter law exists in a state, there’s opportunity for new innovation and that’s what will make the k-12 system more responsive as well. Having that opportunity for innovation is important. Having said all that, I don’t think that chartering has produced enough innovation.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: It is very difficult to start a charter school. I just think that maybe we’ve not given it enough support. There hasn’t been enough focus on the opportunity for innovation.

Q: If you were back in office would there be any changes that you would push for in revisions to the law?

A: I have long conceded that we didn’t spend enough time thinking about authorizers and their role when we did the initial legislation. I think that caused some of the earlier problems. That has really come around with national organizations that are helping authorizers. I don’t think there’s any need to change the law. What I think the needs in chartering right now are, number one, to make sure we have strong authorizers. Secondly, that the governing boards of the charter schools are well trained and well prepared for their role in holding schools accountable. That’s really important. Governance has been an area that hasn’t been dealt with enough. Third, we really need to do more recruiting of strong entrepreneurial leaders and teachers. Another area that’s policy based is that there still isn’t equitable funding for charter schools. Most charter schools do more with less and there isn’t equitable funding in facilities. We really need to be looking at these issues in a broader context.

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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