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October 24, 2013 at 7:30 AM

The origins of charter schools offer insight for Washington state

photo (7)UPDATED:

Call Embert Reichgott Junge the mother of all charter schools and you’re not far off the mark. The Democrat was in the Minnesota state Senate in the early 1990s and helped write and pass the nation’s first charter school law. That legislative feat led to the expansion of charters across the country.

Washington state was one of the last states to adopt a law allowing charters and with the news this week that 23 organizations have advised the state Charter School Commission of their interest opening a school here, it seemed useful to look at where charters have been to get a gauge on where this state is going. Junge was in Seattle this week speaking with pro-education reform groups and pushing  “Zero Chance of Passage,” her account of the bipartisan effort to pass the first charter school law.

Talking with Junge, one thing quickly becomes apparent. The political history of charter schools is sorely misunderstood. The non-traditional public schools have been cast by opponents as a tool used by the political right to privatize education. The truth is charter schools grew out of the political center. The victory in Minnesota was led by moderates. There was Junge but also the state’s Democratic governor, Rudy Perpich; Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers; and civic leaders looking to improve public schools. Everyone was drawn to charters for different reasons. Perpich wanted to expand school choice. Shanker and other union leaders were drawn to charter schools’ promise of autonomy which they interpreted as allowing teachers more control over school decisions. Now fast forward 20 years later.

There are two million students enrolled in about 6,000 charter schools nationwide.  Polls show the vast majority of Americans support charter schools. Every presidential candidate since Bill Clinton has touted charters as part of their education platform. Indeed, the former president is on the back cover of Junge’s book calling it “a fascinating and detailed account of the bipartisan movement to revive the American education system.”  Conservatives need not be jealous. Glowing words also come from an education adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Junge admits charters swept the nation with a bit of a “Wild West” mentality. In some states, charters have been loosely regulated and the result is some really awful schools that ought to be closed. It is worth noting that the number of charter schools shut down for poor performance has doubled, from 6 percent to 12 percent. Few traditional public schools are closed when they fail their students.

Two decades in, fears that charter schools would dismantle public education have not been realized. Instead, charters are serving as a catalyst. Nearly every district now has innovative schools. Freeing schools from cumbersome regulations has become the norm. Junge is optimistic that charters can serve as a research and development arm to Washington’s public system. I would say they already have.

Here’s a TVW interview with Junge.
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