An Interview with Ember Reichgott Junge: Reflecting on Charter Schools

Aug 18, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge is the author of Minnesota’s 1991 first-in-nation charter school law, which was a winner of the 2000 Innovations in American Government Award from the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. The 18-year legislator served as Senate Assistant Majority Leader before stepping down from senate service in 2000.

1) Senator, before we begin, let me first take this opportunity to thank you on behalf of the children of America for your fine work.   Now, when did the first idea for this thing that we now call a “charter school” enter your mind?

The pioneering charter school story is the story of ordinary people taking an extraordinary stand for change.  These chartering pioneers—entrepreneurial teachers, school leaders, and volunteer board members–are still emerging every day around the country, and I am grateful to them.

I learned about a “charter school” at an educational reform conference in northern Minnesota in October, 1988, attended by business, civic, education, and policy leaders.  The Minnesota legislature had just passed the first open enrollment initiative in the nation, allowing students to attend district public schools throughout the state.  That begged another question for me, as a Minnesota state senator:  Once students had more access to choices, what if all the choices were the same?  We needed more choices to access.  Not all students could travel across town to attend their public school of choice.  We needed more choices in their neighborhoods.

One answer to that question emerged from an unlikely source.  In March, 1988, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, introduced the idea of “charter schools” to a National Press Club audience in Washington D.C. and later presented it at our Minnesota education reform conference.  He saw charter schools as a way to provide teacher autonomy and professionalism.  He told the Minnesota conference attendees that school districts could “take their customers for granted.”  As community leaders, we agreed.

That evening a group of conference attendees sat around a dinner table and the ideas started flowing.  Maybe it was the wine!  What would a “charter school” look like?  We jotted down our ideas on a dinner napkin.  Yes, chartered school legislation began on a dinner napkin!

2) Were there any other educators and colleagues involved in the formulation of this idea ?

Yes.  A task force of the Citizens League in Minnesota had been at work since February to identify ways to improve our public education system.  They picked up on Shanker’s idea.  Civic leaders from business, labor, education, and community, with guidance from former Citizens League executive director Ted Kolderie (whom I call the “Godfather” of chartering), laid the groundwork for the first chartered school legislation in the nation, to be introduced in the state senate in 1989.  These leaders didn’t have a political agenda.  Chartering came from outside the political system. Sometimes the best thing policymakers can do is step back, remove the barriers, and let citizens take the lead!

3) What opposition did you first encounter?

The legislation took three years to pass. For the first two and a half years, there was little opposition, because frankly, most people thought it had little chance of becoming reality.  Only when it appeared the legislative votes were lining up around March, 1991, did opposition arise.  Resistance came from everywhere:  school boards, school administrators, and the entire education establishment. The most vigorous opposition came from the two teacher unions in our state:  the Minnesota Federation of Teachers and Minnesota Education Association.  The unions were highly influential with the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party, which held large majorities in both houses of the legislature.

4) What support was forthcoming?

Our chartering work was supported by a small group of visionary education reform leaders led by Ted Kolderie, Joe Nathan, former Senator and Commissioner of Education Tom Nelson, and others.  The most widespread support came from the business community, leaders of communities of color, and a group of entrepreneurial teachers and administrators who envisioned opportunities in chartering for empowering teachers and providing more opportunities for children, including children of special needs.

5) Often in America, we have noble experiments—I am thinking of Prohibition- where the government attempted to outlaw alcohol—did you get any feedback that this charter school idea was going to be a valiant attempt, but futile in the end?

All the time!  In fact, the title of my book, Zero Chance of Passage, came from my colleague, DFL Representative Becky Kelso, who championed the chartered school bill in the (resistant) House of Representatives in 1991.  When asked years later what she thought when I gave her the bill to author, she replied, to my enormous surprise, “I had zero confidence it would pass.”  That came from our champion in the House of Representatives!

6) Now, first reactions from your state when the charter school law was passed?

Personally, I was devastated that we had to compromise the bill so much.  Other charter supporters were also disappointed.   The only authorizers approved by the legislature were the local school boards, and we knew they wouldn’t be interested in approving chartered schools.  I thought chartered schools would never open.

You can imagine my surprise when within two weeks of passage, Republican U.S. Senator David Durenberger from Minnesota and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, then chair of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), took hold of the chartering legislation as a bipartisan form of public school choice.  They both saw it as a centrist and pragmatic alternative between President George H.W. Bush’s proposal for private school vouchers and the status quo desired by Congressional House Democrats.  They knew the public was demanding “tradition-shattering changes” in K-12 public education and demanding results.  Within months, chartering became central to the national conversation on education reform.

7) In terms of actual historical record–was there a person who began to keep track of the number of schools, and their success record?

I suspect that Joe Nathan, founder of the Center for School Change, was doing this, as were others in the education reform community.  Peggy Hunter was the first designated staff member at the Minnesota Department of Education to oversee charter schools and she developed a database around charter schools in Minnesota.

8) Now, some not so politically correct questions—did you get any feedback that this ” charter school idea ” was a way to keep discipline problems away from normal or average kids or that this charter school would NOT accept children with special needs?

We did.  Usually people alleged that charter public schools would “skim” all the high-performing students from the district public schools.  That did not bear out.  In Minnesota, charter schools serve a greater percentage of special needs students than do district schools.  And, of course, children are accepted by lottery in all chartered schools.

9) Did you at the time conceptualize of any long range studies on the efficacy of these charter schools?

Maybe others conceptualized this, but for me, I was still focused on providing more options for students and teachers in Minnesota and allowing new innovations in education to surface.  We all saw chartering as the “research and development” sector of public education.  We were more interested in what innovations would emerge in chartered schools, as well as what innovations would emerge in K-12 district schools as they responded to this new stimulus for the K-12 system.

10) Now, do you have any global idea as to how charter schools have permeated the U.S.?

Today more than 2.3 million students attend over 6,000 chartered schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia.  Over one million student names are on waiting lists.  Chartering is supported by two-thirds of the American public according to the most recent PKD/Gallup Poll, and every presidential candidate since President Bill Clinton.  In New Orleans, more than 80% of the public school students now attend public charter schools.

11) What feedback do you currently get about charter schools, and what feedback do you seek?

As I travel the country, I hear the same myths about chartering as we heard in Minnesota over 20 years ago.  That’s why I wrote my book, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story– to dispel those myths and set the historical record straight.  What concerns me most is that chartering has become partisan in some states.  In those states, particularly, I stress that chartering is a bipartisan initiative that arose from the middle of the political spectrum championed by Democrats, including me.

I seek a new conversation in this country about chartering.  We must move beyond the common debate of “Which is better, chartered or district schools?”  There are great chartered public schools and great district public schools.  There are low-performing chartered schools and low-performing district schools.  Let’s focus in both sectors on how they define learning, how they go about learning, how their approaches are working, and how results are achieved.  If a school is not working, let’s end it.  That’s how we’ll improve public education for all.

12) Education remains a very much discussed issue in America. Could you provide some of your insights as to why so many of the general public seem so dissatisfied with the public schools in the USA?   And in your mind, what is the general perception of charter schools?

Frankly, I wish there was more focus on education in this country.  In the 1992 national elections, education was a top priority.  We hardly heard about education in the last national election.  There isn’t an “urgency” to change this long-standing system.

The public is dissatisfied because public school students are not prepared for the work world and the global economy upon graduation.  Parents don’t feel heard in some districts, especially some larger urban districts.  They are frustrated when they don’t see needed changes in their K-12 district public schools.  More and more teachers are becoming frustrated because they don’t have autonomy or independence to be creative and entrepreneurial in trying new learning strategies.  They don’t feel valued.

Chartering becomes a choice for these parents and teachers who want the “freedom to be better.”  The more that people learn about chartered schools, the more supportive they become.  As to teachers, some are now embracing Al Shanker’s original vision of chartering as a way for teachers to take leadership in their schools and classrooms.  In Minnesota, the same union leaders who vigorously opposed chartering over twenty years ago now serve on the board of the first teacher union-initiated charter authorizer in the country:  The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools.

The general perception of charter schools across this nation is murky, at best.  About a third of the public still believe charter public schools are private schools.  They believe that charter schools take dollars away from the district schools, when in reality, the state funding follows the student to be educated.  Eight states still do not have any chartering law at all.

13) There have even been some movies about charter schools and the faith the general public has in them. Could you provide an opinion as to why there is this aura surrounding charter schools?

When you visit a charter school, you understand that aura.  There is a special passion that you feel in a chartered school from the students, parents, and school leaders.  They choose to be at that school, and they own its success or improvement plans.  I observed two low-income second-grade students from Brooklyn play classical solos on their tiny violins.  I hear frequently from chartered school teachers about how much they love their work.  Students are the strongest advocates for the longer school day and school year because they love coming to school.  They are proud of their work and who they are. Expectations are high.  If there is one thing that chartered schools have proven without doubt:  every child—no matter income, race, or ability—can achieve academic success.

14) I understand that you have a book about the entire process – could you tell us the title and provide a brief summary? And where readers could find it?

Zero Chance of Passage:  The Pioneering Charter School Story is a personal memoir of my challenging journey as a Minnesota state senator pioneering chartering through its early origins, its tumultuous legislative passage, and its explosion onto the national stage.  It was published in 2012 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first chartered school in the nation on September 7, 1992–City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota.  With never-before-published historical documents and first-person accounts by fifteen supporters and opponents involved in the origins, the book informs both the past and future of public education.

The book is more than the history of public school choice and chartering in America.  It is an eye-opening and stimulating inside look at policymaking.  It is about political lessons of the past guiding policy leaders of today and tomorrow.  It is an inspiring story about ordinary people taking an extraordinary stand for change.

Readers can order the book at www.ZeroChanceOfPassage.com.  I would be pleased to sign the book with a personal note for the recipient before sending it.  The book is also available on Amazon.com.  The book has received multiple regional and national awards, including Third Grand Prize Winner for Nonfiction Books in the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and Best Regional Book of the Year by Reader Views Literary Awards.  I’m delighted the book has attracted a broad audience and won categories in a wide range of genres:  History, Social Change/Current Events, Education, Historical Memoir, and even Total Book Design.

The book is copublished by Charter Schools Development Corporation (www.csdc.org) based in Hanover, Maryland, a nonprofit provider of financing and development of charter schools facilities.  I’m pleased to serve as board vice chair of CSDC.

15) Are there any misconceptions about charter schools and has the public perception of them changed since first initiated?

Unfortunately, myths about chartering abound.  The most common myth is that charter schools are private schools.  Public perception of this has been gradually changing with leadership from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (www.publiccharters.org) and other national charter organizations.   I fear that opponents have shaped the messaging in some states, and that is why I wrote my book and am devoting time to restarting the conversation as a resource and public speaker around the country.

16) Your predictions (if any) for the future in terms of charter schools?

Chartering is here to stay in the U.S. and even in countries around the globe (ie England, New Zealand, India).  To sustain the third decade of chartering, and to insure quality, high-performing schools, we must recruit and develop strong entrepreneurial chartered school leaders and teachers; recruit and develop strong board members of governing boards of chartered schools; and train and recruit knowledgeable authorizers.  Key issues around the country include the need for equitable funding of chartered public schools as compared to district public schools, as well as equitable funding for chartered schools facilities.  Quality facilities are a great barrier to charter school leaders in many states, and that is why I chose to serve as a volunteer board member for Charter Schools Development Corporation.

17) The number of charter schools appears to be growing. At the same time, the number of students with exceptionalities also seems to be growing. Do you foresee the need for special charter schools for children with disabilities or exceptionalities, or various health and medical conditions?

There is great opportunity in chartering for families with students with special needs, and there are many chartered schools serving students with special needs around the country.  One of the first chartered schools in Minnesota was the Metro Deaf School, still serving today children who are deaf or hearing impaired with American Sign Language (ASL)/English bilingual approach.  An early charter school in Minnesota provided innovative biofeedback technologies to help children with learning disabilities, and this technology has now expanded well beyond the borders of Minnesota.

18) Looking back twenty years–has your idea come to fruition, or has it been tweaked or modified or simply grown with the times?

The innovation of chartering is that it continues to spur new innovations in learning, curriculum, teaching models, policies and structures from startup schools to national legislatures.  As long as chartering legislative policies stimulate continuing innovation in our public education system, chartering accomplishes a fundamental purpose envisioned at its origins.  That being said, there has not been enough innovations.  Chartered schools were originally envisioned to be the “research and development” sector of public education.  The charter sector must rise to that challenge.

In terms of the first legislation, it became clear that we didn’t focus enough on authorizers and their important role in chartering.  Authorizers must be well-trained and well-suited to their role in holding chartered schools accountable for performance.  Similarly, the board members of charter schools must also be well-trained and prepared for their role.  Support for these efforts is growing around the country, but more support is greatly needed in these areas as chartering grows.

19) What have I neglected to ask?

I would be pleased to serve as a resource regarding chartering for educators and others, and can be contacted at ember@visi.com, at 612-750-1262, or at www.ZeroChanceOfPassage.com.  I love hearing first-hand stories from students and teachers in chartered schools, and enjoy contributing to the public conversation.  Thank you for this opportunity

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