Reader Commentary: Progressives Should Support Charter Public Schools

Can charter schools overhaul the public school system?

America’s public education system often does not prize progress or reward risk-takers. In fact, the system often frustrates innovative, talented teachers and caring, committed parents.

The charter public school movement can — and is — helping to produce critically needed changes. Experiences around the country show that strong charter laws help youngsters who are not succeeding in traditional schools, while encouraging broader systemic change. Key Democratic legislators who support public schools and oppose vouchers for private schools have played a critical role in the charter movement. These include U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (Minn.), Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, former California state Sen. Gary Hart, and the author of the nation’s first charter legislation, Minnesota state Sen. Ember Reichgott-Junge.

I came to charter schools as an outgrowth of life-long concerns, beginning with involvement in the civil rights movement as a teenager growing up in Kansas City, through decades of work in public schools, including helping to create a K12 alternative public school. I now direct the Center for School Change in the Twin Cities. My wife is a St. Paul public school teacher and our three children attend the St. Paul public schools. I offer this background to underscore that I am deeply committed to racially integrated public education.

Charter advocates don’t deny that there are many problems in society: far too much poverty, far too little access to quality medical care, many challenging families, many troubled students. Most charter advocates agree that it is unjust for some suburban districts to spend $18,000 per pupil, and other inner-city districts just 20-30 minutes away have only about $7,000 to spend per pupil. This is a shameful disparity. It should be changed.

My experience and research convince me that good public school teachers are right: problems outside school should not be used to excuse problems inside schools. And there are plenty of such problems, some created by large, bureaucratic school systems, others by labor/management agreements, some by a funding system which does not reward school-level progress or penalize failure.

Funding disparities are not the only unfair aspects of the public education system. The debate about school choice is really a debate about what, if any, choices low and moderate-income families will have. Wealthy families have plenty of school choices.

But some school choice plans create more problems than they solve. A federal study found that more than half of the nation’s secondary magnet schools have admissions tests, as do 24% of the elementary magnet schools. And most voucher proposals allow private schools to select their students and charge additional tuition. They won’t expand opportunity much.

Nonetheless, system defenders are wrong when they argue there is no crisis in the public education system. As John Goodlad wrote in his classic book, A Place Called School, which reported on almost 1,000 classrooms around the country, “the cards are stacked against deviation and innovation.”

It’s not hard to find examples of parent frustration with public schools. Readers will be familiar with the kinds of complaints the Center for School Change receives each week. These include the observations that some teachers are superb, and others right next door or down the hall are indifferent or openly antagonistic toward students; that some administrators claim nothing can be done about ineffective teachers unless they commit actual crimes, and that some schools appear to have extremely low expectations of students, especially students of color.

Furthermore, this frustration appears to be widespread. A recent study by the Public Agenda Foundation in New York City asked Americans to select one of five areas of government responsibility (crime, foreign policy, elections, welfare, and public education) that “most urgently needed change.” Education was in a first-place tie with welfare. As the foundation noted, “Most Americans simply do not want to ‘live with’ the status quo.”


Parents aren’t the only ones who are frustrated. Teachers often encounter intense bureaucracy like that which infuriated Jessica Siegel, heroine of Small Victories, written by former New York Times reporter Samuel Friedman. Siegel was a New York City public school writing and journalism teacher who found ways to save money and produce a better student newspaper by hiring reliable printers near her Lower East Side high school. But district rules prohibited using a small, neighborhood printer. The district awarded contracts to a handful of printers who could handle huge printing jobs, even though they were often slower and more expensive than neighborhood printers.

Or consider the teacher who wanted to create a “school within a school” in her home town in St. Cloud, Minn., after developing one in a nearby district. She met for months with district administrators and ultimately the school board, which asked the superintendent to work out the details. But the superintendent really didn’t want to start the program. He told the teacher she could create her program but that she would not get credit for her 12 years of work in another district, thus having to take a pay cut of almost $8,000. When the teacher questioned this she was told it was district policy and the only exceptions were when football coaches were hired from other districts. The teacher left education.

Her situation is not unique. American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker, for instance, has noted that public school teachers face myriad difficulties when they try to create innovative “schools within schools.”

“Many schools within schools were or are treated like traitors or outlaws for daring to move out of the lock-step and do something different,” Shanker wrote in a 1988 article. “Their initiators had to move heaven and earth to get school officials to authorize them, and if they managed that, often they could look forward to insecurity, obscurity or outright hostility.”

Sometimes teachers’ frustrations come from district bureaucracy and sometimes from labor/management agreements. One 1992 survey that I co-conducted found that 3 of the last 16 statewide Minnesota “teachers of the year” had been laid off due to relatively low seniority. Too often people encounter rules like those recently adopted in one large northern school district, where the district has agreed that teachers can be asked to go to meetings before or after school for only 20 minutes a month. Schools requiring teachers to attend meetings beyond that time must pay them.

In one Minnesota district, a group of teachers created an elementary school within a school. Trying to increase cooperation with parents, the educators asked when the parents would prefer to meet on a monthly basis. The parents, many of whom lived and worked near the public school, voted to meet once a month at lunch. The teachers agreed, but the union objected because such a meeting violated the contract’s “duty free” lunch provisions. The teachers noted that they had volunteered to meet with the parents and wanted to continue to do so. The union protested before the school board and brought in a regional union official who urged the teachers to stop meeting. They refused, but under intense pressure from other teachers, two of the five teachers left the program over the next few years. Furthermore, despite the new program’s progress on attendance, achievement, and attitude among the students, the district has not responded to the parents’ recommendations to expand the program.

There are many such stories. As Friedman writes about Jessica Siegel and many other good educators: “A good teacher is ground down … over weeks and months and years, and a good teacher who tries to resist learns that the millstone is an implacable adversary.”

Such problems are not limited to large urban systems. A national study in 1992 by Richard and Patricia Schmuck found that despite their smaller size, “too often small districts appear to be manifesting … relationships of an impersonal, bureaucratic society.”

Every few years another book, like Herb Kohl’s 36Childrenor Jonathan Kozol’s Deathatan Early Ageor Samuel Friedman’s Small Victories, comes along describing the efforts of teachers to help youngsters, often but not exclusively in large urban districts.

Too often teachers become tired, bitter, or frustrated by colleagues who have given up. These problems are central to a system where funds come to the schools regardless of whether graduation rates or student achievement improves. This is not a system which rewards those who try to improve schools.


It is time to try a different kind of system. A central part of that new system is the charter approach. Charter schools share the following key features:

  • Charter schools are public schools. They are non-sectarian. They may not have admissions tests. (Virtually all of the 25 states which have passed charter laws include this provision.) They may not charge tuition, should receive the same per-pupil allocations as other schools in their areas, use buildings meeting fire and safety regulations, and be accessible to handicapped students.
  • The state legislature will authorize more than one public organization to sponsor a charter school. This means that a local school district and the state, and perhaps public post-secondary institutions, should have the authority to grant charters. This multiple sponsor idea is critical as it gives teachers and parents a chance to do what makes sense while providing for thoughtful competition in existing school districts.
  • Each charter school will have a contract between itself and the sponsoring group, outlining the conditions under which it operates, and the academic goals it has for its students. Schools must achieve these goals over a 3-5 year period or lose their contract.
  • Charter schools are independent of local labor/management agreements, although their employees may decide to be members of a union. Charter faculty may participate in statewide pension programs if they wish. This independence from labor management contracts is critical. The AFT, for instance, is promoting Rhode Island’s charter law, which requires permission from a local board and the teachers union for any change in the local labor/management agreement. The Rhode Island law has not produced any charters in 18 months.
  • Charter schools are schools of choice. No one — student or faculty — is assigned to them.
  • In exchange for this explicit school-level accountability, charter schools are exempt from most state rules and regulations other than those mentioned above.

A variety of local low-income and community of color advocacy groups around the nation are starting charter schools. This includes ACORN (Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now), the Urban League in San Diego, and the Tejano Center in Houston. Several national studies have found that students of color attend charter schools in higher proportions than their percentage of the population. As Richard Farias, director of the Tejano Center, explained, “We aren’t giving up on public school reform. We see the charter movement as a way to provide better schools for our students now — and as a way to encourage the public school system to improve.”

Union reactions to charters vary. The Michigan Education Association has called the charter idea “part of a rightwing effort.” But with many progressives involved, some unions see new opportunities for themselves and their members. Houston Federation of Teachers president Gayle Fallon is helping the Tejano Center to create a charter. The NEA has allocated $1.5 million to help members start charter schools, and has asked two teachers at successful charter schools to assist.


With only about 500 charter schools in about a dozen states, most public school systems don’t feel much competition — yet. But already there are examples that the charter movement is promoting broader systemic improvement. Here are a few of them.

  • Boston. The 1994 Massachusetts charter law gives the local school district no authorizing or supervisory power over charter schools. The state teachers unions had opposed this concept. Their preference was that local districts should have sole power to grant charters. However, noting school board resistance to charters in other states, the Massachusetts legislature decided to bypass local districts. Individuals and groups willing to establish charter schools may seek approval from a state agency, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education.

    Eighteen of the first 64 proposals came from Boston, and five of the first 15 approved charter schools were located in Boston. The Boston Public Schools and Boston Teachers Union did not sit back passively. While the legislature was debating the charter school bill, they discussed the possibility of creating a within-district chartering policy. Disagreements kept them from adopting such a policy. The charter law passed and within six months, the teachers union and the school district reached agreement on a program for “pilot schools.” Under the program, local teachers were allowed to apply to the district and union for waivers of any and all provisions of district policies and the master contract. In the fall of 1995, five new Boston “pilot schools” opened.

    The story of Boston public school educators Larry Myatt and Linda Nathan offers an interesting glimpse of the relationship between charter schools and public school reform.

    When the charter law was passed, Myatt and Nathan saw an opportunity to create the kind of school they had been envisioning for more than a decade. In 1983 they had helped start the Fenway Middle College School — a school within a school designed to serve a cross-section of the city’s high school students. In 1994 they applied and received permission to convert to charter status. As they wrote in the Phi Delta Kappanthis September:

    “We saw the charter movement as an answer to the four kinds of autonomy we had always coveted: the power to create our own budget, based on teaching, learning and counseling needs; the freedom to teach our own curriculum and to grant diplomas by portfolio and exhibition; the ability to hire the best teachers regardless of union and central office restrictions; and the unhindered pursuits of a new brand of intimate, supportive governance to be provided by our own board, independent of a rigid bureaucracy and a political school committee.”

    Myatt and Nathan were also pleased when the pilot school program was created. As they wrote, “Thanks to the charter initiative, Boston had ‘seen the light’ and we had been offered a wonderful opportunity to actually help push the system along.”

    In the summer of 1994, Fenway was wooed both by the state and the Boston Public Schools. The school asked questions about which sponsor offered greater technical assistance, security, and responsiveness. Ultimately, Myatt and Nathan chose “pilot” over “charter” school status.

    Problems have not disappeared, however. “Halfway through our first pilot year, we are yet to find the going easy with the school department,” Myatt and Nathan wrote. “Although in theory the central administration is supportive of the need to create more autonomous school units, changing past practice has proven to be difficult. Issues such as burdensome monitoring/compliance paperwork, purchasing procedures, arranging payment for teacher overtime and stipends, and the use of consultants still cause anxiety and frustration.”

    Meanwhile, the number of pilot schools in Boston expands, as does the number of charter schools.
  • Jefferson County, Colo. The suburban/rural district of Jefferson County, Colo., had been frustrating parents for years. More than 1,000 students were on waiting lists for the district’s alternative public schools. For seven years, parents had pleaded unsuccessfully for these award-winning programs to be replicated.

    Then Colorado’s charter law was adopted. Five groups proposed charter schools in Jefferson County. The board reversed itself and within eight months convinced three of the groups to work with them in creating new within-district alternatives.

    The two charter schools which were approved represent significantly different approaches. One is an elementary program for about 190 students featuring a “back to basics” approach. The other is a K-12 school of about 450 students using a highly innovative approach reflected in part by its name, the Community Involved Charter School.

    By the end of the 1993-94 school year, Jefferson County had more than doubled the number of alternative schools it offered to families. As an article by Mary Anne Raywid in the March 1995 Phi Delta Kappan concluded, “It would appear that the district has become considerably more willing to heed the preferences of its constituents.”
  • Detroit. Detroit’s superintendent has recommended that Detroit sponsor charter schools. Significantly, Michigan law allows public universities as well as local districts to sponsor charter schools. Superintendent David Snead decided that the Detroit district would grant charters because he did not want the district to lose the chance to influence the kind of charters that would be started in the district, and because he did not want the district to lose students, along with revenues. But “just as important as the loss of revenue is the potential loss of outstanding teachers, administrators, principals, and educational leaders who end up looking elsewhere for an opportunity to lead,” Snead said at Michigan school reform conference.

    A year after this speech, Snead was even more supportive of the charter concept. “The charter idea is helping encourage other schools in our district to examine what they are doing,” he told me. “I don’t agree with those who are defensive. We are proud of many things about the Detroit schools. But we can, and must do better. Charter schools are helping us move in the right direction.”

Giving more than one organization the opportunity to offer public education can, and in these cases, has produced broader improvements. It’s not just the students attending Massachusetts, Michigan, or Colorado charter schools who are benefiting from their state’s laws. People who gain include those students who remain in non-charter public schools.

Sometimes simply proposing a charter school produces a positive response. In Rochester, Minn., a private non-sectarian Montessori school asked the local school board for a charter. The board decided instead to create its own Montessori school. After a successful experience with the school, the board responded again to dissatisfied parents who wanted a more traditional elementary school option. As Rochester School Board member Carol Carryer told me in an interview this year, “We learned that working with parents to help create the kind of distinctive schools they think make sense is much better than trying to satisfy everyone by offering the same kind of school for all students and families.”

These ripple effects are exactly what charter proponents hope will happen as legislation expands to allow more charter schools.

President Clinton has convinced Congress to allocate $51 million to help start charter schools. Neither he, nor any other charter advocate, sees charters as a total solution. But they represent an important opportunity for educators to fulfill their dreams, to empower the powerless, and to help encourage a bureaucratic system to be more responsive and more effective.