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Teaching in Chartering: The Freedom to Be Better

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Public school teachers have a very challenging profession. Keeping young learners in their classrooms so engaged that they want to learn takes patience, and enormous skill. But that is only a small part of what teachers can contribute to overall school success.

What if teachers were in charge of the school? What if teachers in a school could collectively use their expertise and be held accountable for decisions regarding budgeting, staffing, curriculum, and team building? What if teachers were allowed to be the professionals they are?

When I was a Minnesota state senator in 1987, I had dinner with a friend who had left her science teaching position in an urban school district. She was then working in the corporate office of a local healthcare entity. Was it the money that had made her quit? "No," she replied. "It was the freedom."

My friend had grown frustrated with the administration of her school district as she sought to implement her creative ideas in curriculum and teaching methods. "My ideas were not valued," she told me. "I was not respected as an educator. I lost my passion."

This was a pivotal conversation for me as I worked over the next five years to author the first chartered school law in 1991 in Minnesota. As a union-endorsed Democrat, I wanted to empower teachers. I wanted to create the opportunity for entrepreneurial teachers and parents to create independent public schools and try new, innovative learning strategies, without the confines of a structured K-12 system unable to change.

Chartering was never intended for all teachers. But it was a valuable option for some. Today chartered school teachers are guiding over 2.3 million students in over 6,000 chartered schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia. And over one million names are on waiting lists to enroll in their classrooms.

Many teachers are surprised to learn that Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was one of the first to propose a "charter school" in a National Press Club speech in 1988. His fundamental interest was in creating a professional role for teachers. He envisioned the new schools as led by teachers within school districts. He told Minnesotans at a conference later that year that "This is a system that can take its customers for granted."

Yet teacher unions were (and still are) skeptical of chartering schools, which typically operate outside the districts' control. They vigorously opposed the passage of chartering in Minnesota in 1991 and in many other states that followed.

I'm grateful that now, after 20 years, some teachers and union leaders see new opportunities in chartering, coming full circle to Shanker's vision. In 2011, Minnesota approved the first union-initiated charter school authorizer in the nation. The same union leaders who opposed chartering twenty years ago now sit on the authorizing board of the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools.

Chartering has also been a catalyst for other reforms in teacher autonomy. In 1994, a "Teacher Professional Partnership" known as EdVisions Cooperative was formed and owned by teachers to provide educational services. The cooperative enters into contracts with chartered school boards in Minnesota, accepting accountability for school success in exchange for teacher authority to make decisions about the school.

That being said, other charter schools explicitly lay out teacher areas of autonomy (i.e. staffing, budgeting, curriculum) in the chartering contracts between authorizers and the school. And still others don't offer teacher autonomy at all. But the possibility for innovation is always there on a school to school basis.

This design change is showing results. Eleven successful examples of teacher autonomy in public schools, charter and district, are illustrated in Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens when Teachers Call the Shots, by Kim Farris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager.

The authors conclude that autonomous teachers emulate the nine cultural characteristics of high-performing organizations. They continue:

...if we want high-performing schools, then the fundamentally different incentive structure of teacher autonomy is the design change we need. It's time to trust teachers with professional authority in return for their acceptance of accountability for school success.

Chartering is one pathway that allows this "freedom to be better" for entrepreneurial teachers. Perhaps if chartering had been available for my college classmate years ago, she would still be engaged in changing lives of young learners.

I encourage teachers across the nation to take a second look at chartering, not through the filter of past controversies, but through the opportunity of gaining autonomy in return for accountability for results. For many teachers, there may be nothing more rewarding than having the freedom to help learners by doing what they do best.