Organized Teachers Developed the Charter School Idea. Return to Their Original DesignRoundup
tags: school choice, charter schools, education history, Teacher Unions
Jon Hale is an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His recent book, The Choice We Face (Beacon Press) examines the history of school choice since the Civil Rights Movement.
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.
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