Charter schools — publicly funded, privately managed schools — can inspire more controversy in today’s education “marketplace” than any other type of school choice. From fraud to mismanagement to profit, charters have stirred the pot. Still, serving more than 3 million children — over seven percent of all students — they have redefined the landscape of public education in the United States and have become a seemingly permanent fixture.
Today, organized teachers stand among the staunchest opponents to charter schools, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, teachers and their unions came up with the original idea for charter schools in the 1980s. The charter school laws that swept the nation, however, strayed far from the original vision.
Ray Budde, a former teacher and education professor in Massachusetts, first proposed the idea of an education charter in the 1970s. In Budde’s proposed plan, school boards would “charter” teachers to launch a program or curriculum that they thought would improve the quality of education for all students.
Lasting for a period of three to five years, teachers in chartered programs would have the autonomy to direct their classrooms and departments as they wished. Then teachers would return to their traditional public schools to implement what they learned. “No one — not the superintendent or the principal or any central office supervisors,” Budde recalled in 1996, “would stand between the school board and the teachers.”
The novel idea of teachers controlling reforms and enacting ideas based on their own volition, research and professional understanding attracted the support of Al Shanker, the renowned union leader.
“Explorers got charters to seek new lands and resources,” Shanker explained in the 1980s. “Many of our most esteemed scientific and cultural institutions were authorized by charters.”
In Shanker’s vision, a small group of teachers — between six and 10 licensed educators — could work with parents, school boards and, of course, teachers unions, to create charters from the ground up. Proposals included additional planning time for lessons, cooperative team teaching and alternative forms of assessment, among other strategies to improve student learning. Shanker’s plan envisioned taking educational decision-making away from administrators and placing it directly in teachers’ hands. In theory, these small groups of teachers who would lead charter “schools” would ensure collaboration, co-teaching and teacher professionalism. This autonomy would give instructors ample time to design, prepare, execute, revise and plan again.
Charter schools, as Shanker imagined them, wouldn’t just boost teacher professionalism, but they would also help repair his tarnished image. The incendiary Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher strikes of 1968 pitted Black and Latino parents — who demanded racially diverse teachers and community control of the schools — against the union, which wanted to control the hiring process of the largely White teaching force.
With a focus on historically marginalized schools and areas, in Shanker’s estimation, charters would promote greater diversity and a commitment to integration by centering the relationships between teachers and students. It also facilitated the autonomy to implement new teaching strategies, curriculums and other approaches to improve the learning process.
One of the first extensive charter school programs in the nation began to develop in Minnesota as early as 1988 when the Citizens League, a nonprofit that advocates for stronger civic engagement across the state, committed to implementing the charter idea aligned with Shanker’s vision. The League worked with Shanker and a progressive coalition of teachers and policymakers from across the state.
The report they published, “Chartered Schools = Choices for Educators + Quality for All Students,” called for integration objectives that cultivated diversity along racial, cultural and economic lines. It championed a “multicultural and gender fair curriculum” and a racially diverse faculty and staff. It even called for “an affirmative plan for promoting integration by ability level and race.”
By the early 1990s, charter schools began to appear in state legislation, first in Minnesota, next in California. By 1994, 16 additional states had proposed charter school legislation, oftentimes with political fanfare from governors who sought to improve public education by providing new options to traditional schools. Twenty-five years after the first charter legislation passed, in the fall of 2016, more than 3 million students were enrolled in nearly 7,000 charter schools. But the plans that emerged were a far cry from the ones Budde and Shanker imagined.
Conservative education reformers hijacked their vision. They agreed in principle to teacher input, but they kept collective bargaining and the right to unionize out of legislation. Instead of schools run by public school teachers, the charters conservatives proposed would become public schools run by private entities.
Moderate education reformers wanted a better option than the religious voucher plans that were gaining traction in Wisconsin the early 1990s. For them, charters — with or without unions — were a much more appealing way to reform public schools than funding private religious schools. Additionally, libertarian and business-sector reformers continued to advocate for nullifying government regulation and building an education “marketplace” on the principles of free market logic, competition and “innovation.”
These forces exerted strong influence on state-level politicians in the early 1990s so that when Minnesota legislators passed the first charter laws in 1991, the plan that emerged had little resemblance to the version teachers had created. Professional autonomy and more decision-making were scuttled.
In fact, that first legislation catered to anti-union sentiment and did not even mandate standard teaching requirements. It also precluded collective bargaining rights for charter schoolteachers. In just a few short years, charter schools transformed from an idea that could increase teacher autonomy and improve school-community relationships to privately managed entities that undermined teacher professionalism and eroded local public schools.
The charter plans of the early 1990s created new political coalitions, drawing together conservative reformers, moderate policymakers willing to compromise and a business sector increasingly interested in education reform. Against this new front, the otherwise strong teachers union was drowned out of the debate and deliberately excluded from charter legislation. Businesses were free to run charter schools and credentials in teaching or the field of education were not required.
Charter legislation that embraced competition, innovation and ideas of a free market cut off certified and union teachers from controlling the charter concept. By 2015, only five of 42 states required charter school teachers to be covered by district collective bargaining agreements.
Chester Finn, a conservative education policy analyst who served in the Reagan administration, noted, “the single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” And it was this vision that won the debate as charter schools began to proliferate.
The political drama over charters is far from over, however.
Simmering tension continues to build today, particularly as teacher resistance to charters began to grow after the Chicago teacher strikes in 2012 and the Red for Ed movement that shook the nation in 2018.
Despite the anti-union legislation governing charters, 7 percent of all charter schools are unionized. In Chicago, the charter school teacher strike of 2018 signaled a new form of organizing and the potential for unionization. Much like the Chicago Teachers Union, charter teachers demanded higher salary and smaller class sizes. As American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten observed, “Charter-school teachers are starting to recognize more and more that they need the union as a vehicle to create the power to have, at the very least, conversations.”
As local and state governments continue to direct funding away from the communities and public schools that need it most, conditions worsen and more parents feel they have no option but to abandon their local public schools. Over $900 million of pandemic relief funding has been appropriated for charter schools, even as researchers have documented that those schools are besieged by their own challenges and often fare no better than public schools.
Thirty years after the first charter school legislation, the charters we have are a far cry from the ideal organized teachers imagined. It may finally be time we listen to what teachers have to say — and recognize the longer history behind charters — as we struggle to reimagine the future of education during the pandemic.