According to the Sept. 2013 PDK/Gallup Poll, "Americans' support for public charter schools remains high at slightly less than 70 percent, and two of three Americans support new pubic charter schools in their communities." Every presidential candidate since President Bill Clinton has supported chartering. Chartering has sustained as a major redesign of public education for over twenty years. And today over 2.3 million students attend over 6,000 public chartered schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia, and over one million names are on waiting lists.
Consider this: What else does over 2/3 of the American public support in today's divisive political world? Not much.
The first charter school law passed the Minnesota legislature in 1991 for these basic reasons: It was a bipartisan idea that came from the middle of the political spectrum and from outside the political system. It was an idea that came from the "Reform Center" of American politics, championed by centrist policy leaders.
Regretfully, polarization and partisanship have shrunk the Reform Center. There isn't a political middle anymore in today's politics. A shriveled political center means less innovation in government.
We must bring back the Reform Center. Public innovations rarely come from the political extremes.
But how did chartering, an idea that had "zero chance of passage" in the words of the Minnesota House sponsor of the bill, come to pass? What lessons from this can guide policy reformers of today as they propose new ideas that meet the policy challenges of today?
Think outside the traditional political "box." The legislative template came from a group of Minnesota civic and business leaders tasked with improving K-12 public education. Sometimes the most important thing policymakers can do is step back, remove barriers, and let citizens lead the way. Crucially, they called for real accountability, insisting that chartered schools that don't succeed be closed.
Bring back the Reform Center. Championed by centrist Democrats in Minnesota, the first law passed through a skeptical Democratic-Farmer-Labor majority legislature with significant help from the Republican minority. This was a real bipartisan coalition. Chartering passed by only three votes in a resistant House of Representatives with support from 42 percent of the majority Democrats, 56 percent of the minority Republicans, and an education reformer as Democratic House speaker. Within two weeks of the law's passage, both U.S. Senator David Durenberger (R-MN) and Governor Bill Clinton, chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, touted chartering as a centrist public school choice alternative between private school vouchers and the status quo.
Compromise! Compromise is not defeat. Minnesota chartering advocates were deeply worried that the original 1991 law was so compromised that no schools would be chartered. We know now that without compromise, no bill would have passed. Two years later, the legislature improved the law, making it a model for the nation. The lesson here? Compromise is essential to good governance. As former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe wrote in her book, Fighting for Common Ground, "compromise is not a capitulation of one's principles... Rather it is a recognition that not getting all that you want may be the only way to acquire enough votes to achieve most of what you seek."
Empower the opposition. American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker proposed a charter school as early as 1988. He saw chartering as a way to professionalize teaching and envisioned the new schools as operating within school districts. Yet teacher unions have been skeptical of chartering, which typically operate outside the districts' control. Today, many teachers 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 vigorously opposed chartering twenty years ago now sit on the authorizing board of The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools.
Create a catalyst for broader reform. While just 5 percent of the nation's public schools are chartered, they disproportionately top the lists of the nation's best high schools in Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and The Washington Post with over a quarter of the listed schools currently chartered schools. Longer school days, longer school years, and project-based learning are examples of changes chartered schools pioneered in K-12 education. And chartering is having transformational impact on some communities: in at least 20 urban centers, more than one in five public school students attend a public chartered school (including 43 percent of Washington D.C. public school students).
Chartered schools are not a panacea for what ails K-12 education. But they enable two things our public schools urgently need--more innovation and accountability. Conceived over twenty years ago to provide more choices for parents and teachers, they reflect America's "Reform Center" at its best. Where will Reform Center policymakers take us next?