Twenty years ago today, on September 7, 1992, the first chartered school – City Academy – opened its doors in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today, no fewer than two million students attend over 5,600 chartered schools in 41 states and the District of Columbia. It is one of the great success stories of innovation in public policy. And President Bill Clinton, who was a powerful advocate for the chartering movement from its beginning, played a crucial role in helping the movement revolutionize K-12 education throughout the country.
Today, of course, many parents take the opportunity to send their child to a “charter” school – namely, a public school established outside the authority of the local school board – for granted. But just two decades ago, the idea of chartering seemed to have, as one sponsor said, “zero chance of passage.” At the time, even as public schools seemed to be failing so many students all over America, the political conversation was frequently overshadowed by disagreements over other subjects. It was in that gridlocked environment that we proposed an entirely new idea: a law to allow qualified educators to establish alternatives to existing public schools, free to innovate and improve the existing curriculum, but subject to rigorous standards and transparent accountability.
As the Minnesota state senator who authored the first chartered school law in 1991, I know that the chartering movement’s stunning successes weren’t produced on accident. It took a determined set of leaders, prepared to persevere in the face of criticism from entrenched interests suspicious of our intentions.
During the late 1980s, Governor Bill Clinton championed open enrollment in Arkansas, the first state to follow Minnesota’s lead on that form of public school choice. But he knew that having more access to choices wasn’t enough – in the increasingly competitive global economy, American students would need to have the skills to rise to the top. To get there, he concluded, the United States needed to open the K-12 public education system to new and innovative choices. By fall of 1990, the future president was traveling the country promoting chartered schools as part of the agenda of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). And I should note: this was nine months before the Minnesota legislature passed the first chartered school law.
It took patience and perseverance to spread the movement across the country. As the President explained to City Academy students years later: “When I ran for President in 1992, Minnesota had the only public charter school in the country – this one. So when I went around the country talking about charter schools, most people thought I had landed from another planet.” In a political environment mired in a polarized argument over education reform, it was hard in many instances to get policymakers to think outside the box. But, with President Clinton’s support, and with the hard work of hundreds of others who believed in public school choice, the movement took off, with real results.
Of course, not all chartered schools are good schools, but most are as good or better than other public schools. And the chartering community is becoming more vigilant about ensuring that low-performing chartered schools are held accountable or closed. But even as we work to improve upon this model, we should remember that the success of the charter movement is a political story worth understanding. It offers us a view of how a powerful idea emerging from outside the conventional political debate can cut through what President Clinton once labeled the “brain dead politics of right and left.” Recently, I wrote a history of that fight, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story, in the hope that this singular success in the fight for reform will inspire new waves of innovation. If nothing else, those, like President Clinton, who worked diligently to change the nature of public education during the late 1980s and early 1990s deserve credit for turning a small movement born in Minnesota into a national phenomenon.