Asking “Where did it start?” is like asking where a river starts. You have to go upstream, where you probably will find no single source, but several little streams flowing together. Albert Shanker and Ray Budde had the 'charter' idea early. Minnesota got it into law; seeing 'charter' not as a kind of school but as a platform for developing different schools.
It was mostly word of mouth. No master plan; no national ‘project’. Not many education-policy groups supportive; the academic community inattentive. No foundation grants and little media coverage at the start (though both came quickly as the laws appeared.) Efforts in the states were strikingly bipartisan; enacting what 'realists' said couldn't possibly be done. Importantly, too: Congressional legislation in 1994 deferred to state lawmaking.
Use our timeline to learn more about the progress of the chartering idea. Adjust the level of detail shown on the timeline by dragging the slider below.
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Minnesota education begins to unbundle in 1985 as its Legislature enacts the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (allowing juniors and seniors to finish high school in college), a proposal by (Republican) House majority leader Connie Levi. In 1986-1987, the Legislature enacts inter-district open enrollment, an idea proposed by Governor Rudy Perpich. Quickly, though, it’s clear that choice among districts has limited effects. The focus shifts to have more schools for students and families to choose among. The question becomes: How create schools new? And: Who creates them?
Also in the mid-1980s Jack Coons of University of California-Berkeley visits Minnesota to deliver the commencement address at the University of St. Thomas. He meets with folks interested in public schooling, championing ideas about family choice in education, which many find difficult to tolerate. Between 1971 and 1999, Coons and his colleagues, including Stephen D. Sugarman, write a number of publications explaining and advocating school choice mechanisms that they hope will assure genuine choice to families who are financially disadvantaged. Mechanisms include four kinds of schools: traditional public schools, public ‘scholarship schools’ that would be outside of traditional district control (this concept pre-dated Budde’s term ‘charter’), private schools that would accept vouchers (and in exchange would not be allowed to raise outside money), and private schools that would be outside the system and could fund themselves however they wanted with no limits.
Budde’s wife reads Shanker’s column describing his Press Club appearance. “Hey, Ray. You made the New York Times!” A Citizens League study committee that had been examining the Minnesota school structure ‘situation’ since February 1988 considers Shanker's proposal and Budde's ideas.
The Citizens League study committee, chaired by CEO of Cray Research John Rollwagen and with significant leadership from Ted Kolderie (now co-founder of Education|Evolving), modifies the ideas of Budde and Shanker. The group envisions ‘chartered schools’ made possible via state policy and with schools being approved by the state or by universities as well as by a local board of education. These new schools could be set up outside an existing school building.
Virginia Greenman of The Minneapolis Foundation, aware of the Citizens League work, flies Shanker to Minnesota for the foundation’s Itasca Seminar at Gull Lake, devoted that year to K-12 education. Sy Fliegel, Deputy Superintendent in an East Harlem school district, describes to attendees the new and charter-like schools created there. After Shanker leaves Gull Lake several attendees begin thinking about how to realize the Citizens League version of the idea in Minnesota. The group includes Joe Nathan, a Citizens League member who had spoken with the study committee, and two legislators: DFL Senator Ember Reichgott and Representative Ken Nelson, who start thinking about state legislation.
The Citizens League publishes Chartered Schools = Choices for Educators + Quality for All Students.
In Chicago, Joe Loftus almost simultaneously comes up with the idea in his work for the Urban Child Welfare Project of the Center for Research, Planning and Advocacy. He publishes Charter Schools: A Potential Solution to the Riddle of School Reform. Ideas Loftus advanced in the paper come into chartering much later, but in Chicago at the time his idea loses out to the idea of parent-run schools.
Senator Reichgott gets a charter provision into the Minnesota Senate education omnibus bill both years. The House does not accept it. But as the conference committee breaks up in 1990, DFL Representative Becky Kelso tells Reichgott: "If you'd like to try that charter idea again next year, I'd like to help you." In fall 1990 Governor Perpich’s Commissioner of Education, Tom Nelson, chairs a task force that creates an improved bill. The Citizens League is active in all of this legislative effort, in particular Peter Vanderpoel. There was also some support from teachers.
Representative Kelso and Nelson gets a compromised version of the bill through the House (with a cap on the number of schools and with districts as the sole authorizers; both since dropped from Minnesota law). The Senate accepts the conditions. Governor Arne Carlson signs it into law as part of the omnibus bill.
Joe Nathan, by then head of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, takes the lead in assembling teachers and others to use the enabling legislation to start schools. Gradually proposals begin to appear; schools begin to appear.
The ink on the new law was barely dry when U.S. Senator from Minnesota Dave Durenberger (R) and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduce the federal Public School Redefinition Act, creating a federal start-up grant program for chartered schools. It does not pass. The authors remain committed to the principal goals: build awareness of the charter idea nationally, encourage states to pass chartered school laws, and address the absence of planning and start-up funding for schools.
Eric Premack, a Minneapolis native and former Citizens League intern, spreads the idea in California and arranges meetings between Ted Kolderie and key actors in the state. California enacts a chartering program, in somewhat different form. Senator Gary Hart authors the bill and gets it through on the last evening of the session.
Will Marshall at the Democratic Leadership Council spots the potential of public-school choice and chartering for the DLC agenda. He makes it central in the policy-book they do for Bill Clinton. Taking office in 1993, Clinton is a supporter. Secretary of Education Richard Riley and his Special Assistant Jon Schnur work to expand the concept.
U.S. Senators Durenberrger and Lieberman reintroduce the Public School Redefinition Act. Representatives Dave McCurdy (D-OK) and Tom Petri (R-WI) introduce companion legislation in the U.S. House. Again, it is not enacted.
Six states act. There is bipartisan leadership. Barbara O’Brien at the Colorado Childrens Campaign is key in Colorado. Representative Peggy Kerns (D) and Senator Bill Owens (R) become authors. Governor Roy Romer (D) makes the bill a ‘must’. In Wisconsin, Senn Brown is important, at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. In Massachusetts, Mark Roosevelt, chair of the Assembly Education Committee and soon to be Democratic nominee for governor, authors. These Acts introduce more variations on the original idea. Ted Kolderie, Joe Nathan and others are on the road to support these efforts.
President Clinton includes the charter grant program first proposed in 1991 by Senators Durenberger and Lieberman in his legislation reauthorizing the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The U.S. Congress adopts the legislation. The federal grant program goes from $6 million to over $200 million. In House/Senate conference committee deliberations, a bipartisan alliance between Senator Durenberger, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and the Clinton Administration (including Secretary Riley and his special assistant Jon Schnur) succeeds in overcoming the House position that only districts should be allowed to authorize chartered schools. The final bill leaves this critical question to be answered by each state in their chartering laws.
The National Education Association launches a task force to examine chartering, which later results in an effort to start schools under the charter laws in several states.
Through the 1990s chartering spreads, essentially as a "state capitol policy initiative". Senator Jack Ewing (R) and Assemblyman Joe Doria (D) in New Jersey. Wib Gulley (D) in North Carolina. Governor John Engler (R) in Michigan. Congressman Tom Ridge (R) picks up the idea while still in Congress; his assistant Charles Zogby. Representative Joe Tedder gets his bill through as a freshman Democrat in Florida. Senator Tom Patterson (R) and Representative Lisa Keegan (R) in Arizona. Wily old hands like Senator Cooper Snyder (R) and Representative Mike Fox (R) in Ohio. On and on. Congress does a chartering law for the District of Columbia, thanks partly to a Wisconsin congressman and to determined effort by the business community through the Federal City Council. In state after state a few local citizens, too, who just don't quit.
Budde publishes The Evolution of the Charter Concept, continuing to hope that the decentralized model advanced in the chartering laws would come to be used by districts, too. In a personal note to Ted Kolderie in 1992 he had written, “there has to be a formal, legal change that would ... remove power from most central office positions and flow funds directly to schools” and that these changes would have to be “grounded in state law.”
Senators Barack Obama (D) and John McCain (R) prominently include charter schools as part of their education platforms in their campaigns for US President.
With more than $4 billion in federal aid, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan pressure states to ease limits on chartered schools.