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First in the Midwest: Two decades ago, Minnesota opened the door to charter schools — a step followed by states across the country

by Mike McCabe ~ October 2013 ~ Stateline Midwest »
When lawmakers in Minnesota tweaked their state’s charter school law earlier this year, they weren’t just updating a statute in need of a tune-up. Instead, they were participating in an ongoing national debate about the purpose and role of charter schools as engines of education reform.
It’s a debate that began more than two decades ago, when charter schools were first conceived as a means of fostering innovation in education while offering students and their families more choices and alternatives to traditional public schools.
And right from the start, Minnesota was in the thick of the fray.
A groundbreaking statute approved by the Minnesota Legislature in 1991 — the nation’s first charter school law — paved the way for the charter movement and triggered a flurry of action in legislatures across the country.
Eventually, 42 states would approve charter schools. There are now more than 6,000 charter schools serving more than 2.3 million students.
Still hailed today as a model for the rest of the nation, the Minnesota statute was the product of a long and contentious process, and its fate remained uncertain until the very end.
According to the measure’s chief sponsor, former Minnesota Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, the bill was severely compromised in conference committee, and after a three-year battle marked by previous failures, it appeared that it might not pass.
But despite intense opposition from the state’s teachers unions, school boards and administrators, the measure was eventually approved by just three votes in the Minnesota House, which, like the Senate, was controlled by Democrats at the time.
The bipartisan coalition that provided the winning margin included 42 percent of the House majority caucus and 56 percent of the minority caucus.
That victory, however, did not necessarily mean that charter schools would succeed.
“I thought it was so weak that a charter school would never open,” she recalls of the final compromise legislation.
Her concern was based in part on provisions that allowed only local school districts to approve new charters. The authority for other entities to establish charter schools — a key to making the concept work, according to some proponents — would only follow later.
Nevertheless, the first charter school opened in St. Paul a year after the law was passed.
Today, seven other Midwestern states (all but Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota) have charter school laws. In hindsight, Reichgott Junge sees the Minnesota law not only as a landmark in the charter school movement, but also as a testament to the power of bipartisanship and the art of compromise.
“Compromise is not defeat,” she says, and in Minnesota’s case, she believes it provided a firm foundation for lasting reform.
Charter schools’ successes, failures
According to Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change and one of the architects of the Minnesota statute, school districts across Minnesota have improved their offerings in direct response to the growth of charter schools.
But he is quick to add that “no single strategy is going to solve all the problems of public education,” and notes that while there have been some wonderful success stories in Minnesota, there have also been noteworthy failures. Since the law was enacted, for example, 30 charter schools in the state have closed.
The Minnesota law, as amended through the years, is still widely regarded as a standard for other states to follow. Earlier this year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked the Minnesota statute No. 1 — the third time in four years that the Minnesota law claimed the top spot in the rankings.
According to Todd Ziebarth, the alliance’s vice president of state advocacy, the Minnesota statute compares favorably in providing flexibility to charters to innovate in exchange for closer accountability.
The wide variety of entities that can serve as charter school authorizers in Minnesota is also a relative strength, Ziebarth says, and the state provides “a decent amount of funding” for operations and facilities. He applauds, too, the state’s decision to lift the original cap on the number of charter schools that may be established in Minnesota.


Article written by Mike McCabe, the director of CSG Midwest. First in the Midwest highlights important and influential “firsts” in public policy that occurred in this region. If you have ideas from your state, please contact Mike.