From Shanker to “Superman”: What Happened?

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I thought I knew the “charter school situation.” I’ve read tens of exposés of charters-gone-wrong, followed Diane Ravitch’s blog for years, and even worked locally with a public school advocacy group in my hometown. And yet Richard Kahlenburg and Halley Potter’s depiction of Al Shanker’s original vision in A Smarter Charter was entirely new to me. While I admit my error and ignorance, I cannot shake the feeling that this story appears, to a degree, hidden from plain sight. The rhetoric surrounding charter schools, on either side, does not make salient the pro-union, pro-teacher voice, “incubational,” integrational model from which the idea originated. It follows to ask: why does today’s charter movement deviate so severely from its beginnings? Is there a particular moment, or is it the culmination of events and processes of relatively equal weight that caused this rift?

Smarter Charter’s beginning chapter points to a few explanatory instances. 1991 saw the first piece of legislation that enabled their genesis. However, it failed to include mandatory teacher certification and automatic collective bargaining rights (14). Already, a significant departure occurs; but is the law itself to blame for today’s segregated and racially isolated schools? In the document, the state charter advisory committee requires representation across racial and socioeconomic boundaries, which might imply a focus on desegregation. However, that is where discussion of diversity ends. Nowhere in the law is Shanker’s goal of desegregation mentioned. The problem with this legislation, it seems, is that it was not definitive enough; rather than mandating requirements that directly opposed Shanker’s vision, the law was too lax to encourage and enforce it. Over time, over 30 racially isolated schools took root in Minnesota (14). Was it only a matter of time before charters, unprotected by regulations, began to slide down the slippery conservative, free-market slope?

This deviation was not without political prodding; oddly enough, the pressure is bipartisan. Bill Clinton was a major proponent of charter schools. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation backed the free-market reform movement, monetarily fueling such efforts as David Guggenheim’s charter-worshipping Waiting for Superman, anti-union/teacher tenure efforts like TeachPlus, and even über-libertarian ALEC. Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” provided financial incentive for states to open “high-performing” charter schools en masse. Beyond charters’ shifty, gray-area regulations that please conservatives, it is unclear to me why supposed liberals like Duncan do not reach back to Shanker’s original vision to promote desegregation and teacher voice as a means to better educational opportunity for all.

Minnesota’s 1991 legislation did not explicitly cause or create today’s free-market charters; however, it is a case of what wasn’t said rather than what was. By failing to require protections for unions and student diversity initiatives, the state enabled the opposite to take hold, which established an important—and unfortunate—precedent. In the whirlwind of charters that followed, Shanker’s once-revolutionary speech is all but lost in the storm of reformer rhetoric.

Reference: Minnesota Laws, 1991; Chapter 265, Article 9, Section 3