Charter Schools Allow Freedom to Teach

Published October 28, 2013

Public school teachers have a very challenging profession. Keeping young learners in their classrooms so engaged that they want to learn takes patience, and enormous skill. But that is only a small part of what teachers can contribute to school success.

What if teachers could use their expertise and be held accountable for decisions regarding budgeting, staffing, curriculum, and team building? What if teachers were allowed to be the professionals they are?

When I was a Minnesota state senator in 1987, I had dinner with a friend who had left her job teaching science in an urban school district. She moved to the corporate office of a local healthcare entity. Had the money made her quit? “No,” she replied. “It was the freedom.”

My friend had grown frustrated with school administrators as she sought to implement her creative ideas in curriculum and teaching methods. “My ideas were not valued,” she told me. “I was not respected as an educator. I lost my passion.”

Creating Education Freedom
This was a pivotal conversation for me as I worked over the next five years to author the nation’s first charter school law in 1991 in Minnesota. As a union-endorsed Democrat, I wanted to empower teachers and parents to create independent public schools and try new, innovative learning strategies outside the confines of a K-12 system unable to change.

Chartering was never intended for all teachers. But it was, and remains, a valuable option for some. Today charter school teachers are guiding more than 2.3 million students in over 6,000 chartered schools in 42 states and DC. And more than one million names are on waiting lists to enroll in their classrooms.

Many teachers are surprised to learn that Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was one of the first to propose a “charter school,” in 1988. He wanted to create a professional role for teachers. He envisioned the new schools as being led by teachers within school districts. Later that year, he told Minnesotans, “This is a system that can take its customers for granted.”

Yet teacher unions were (and still are) skeptical of charter schools, which typically operate outside district control. They vigorously opposed Minnesota’s charter law and those of many other states.  

I’m grateful that now, after 20 years, some teachers and union leaders 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 opposed chartering 20 years ago now sit on the authorizing board of the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools.

Catalyst for Reforms
Chartering has also been a catalyst for other reforms in teacher autonomy. In 1994, a “Teacher Professional Partnership” was formed and owned by teachers. It enters into contracts with charter school boards in Minnesota, allowing greater teacher authority in exchange for school success.

That being said, other charter schools explicitly lay out areas of teacher autonomy (staffing, budgeting, curriculum) in contracts between authorizers and the school. Still others don’t offer teacher autonomy at all. But the possibility for innovation is always there.

This design change is showing results. Eleven successful examples of teacher autonomy in public schools, charter and district, are illustrated in Trusting Teachers with School Success, by Kim Farris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager. The authors conclude autonomous teachers emulate the nine cultural characteristics of high-performing organizations. They write, “[I]f we want high-performing schools, then the fundamentally different incentive structure of teacher autonomy is the design change we need. It’s time to trust teachers with professional authority in return for their acceptance of accountability for school success.”

Chartering is one pathway that allows this “freedom to be better” for entrepreneurial teachers. I encourage teachers across the nation to take a second look at chartering, not through the filter of past controversies but through the opportunity of gaining autonomy in return for accountability. For many teachers, there may be nothing more rewarding than having the freedom to help learners by doing what they do best.

Former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge ([email protected]) is author of the nation’s first charter school law and Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School StoryImage by Old Shoe Woman.