Pay attention to any policy area long enough and you’ll see good ideas twisted out of the hands of their founders and turned into something else entirely. At a certain level, that’s what happened to charter schools. Minnesota just might be the place to start fixing that.
At the Shanker Institute’s blog, Esther Quintero has written a piece revisiting the origins of the charter school concept and the early role played by the Shanker Institute’s namesake, union leader Albert Shanker, in discussing the idea. This was, at its foundation, a vision of collaboration, including the notion of teacher-led schools-within-schools as tools of innovation as well as positive, student-focused interactions between charter schools and traditional district schools. Quintero also discusses the advantages offered by schools working collectively in the same place.
Exploring similar themes, a recent report by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University also calls for a less confrontational relationship between schools, identifying as its first standard for good charter school policy that, “Traditional districts and charter schools should work together to ensure a coordinated approach that serves all children.” They emphasize the counterproductive effects of excessive competition— ideas which we’ve discussed at Minnesota 2020 —and the potential (if too often unrealized) benefits of genuine collaboration between district and charter schools.
This dream of schools and leaders from both sectors working together to build good schools and help each student find the right school is not what most of us have seen, however. The weaponization of charter schools and the market mindset for education minimized the student-centered core of the charter idea. Instead of charter schools being transparent partners with districts in pursuit of equal access to opportunities, we saw the two groups pitted against each other in what were too often marketing and public relations competitions rather than conversations about quality or equity.
As the birthplace of charter schools and a state where some homegrown charter schools are still holding onto the founding dream, Minnesota could be the place to display a healthier kind of charter culture. That doesn’t work if the charter advocates who want to dismantle districts lead the movement, and may well require lower-profile collaboration between individual schools that builds into something better. However it ends up manifesting, a return to the original charter ideal would be better for students than the current arrangement.