Guest Post: Are Chartered Schools good schools?

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Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Bob Wedl. We hope you enjoy his insights as he tackles a problematic question.


Bob Wedl’s career in public education includes experience in both district as well as chartered schools, state department leadership and higher education. Bob served as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education in the late 1990’s leading Minnesota’s innovative standards and measurement initiatives, electronic data collection systems and new finance models including having revenue following students to the sites they attend. In the late 1980’s and early 90’s while serving as deputy commissioner of education, he was a leader in the development of much of Minnesota’s choice policy including open enrollment, post-secondary enrollment options, “second chance” programs and the nations first charter school law.

Bob served as the Executive Director of Planning and Policy for the Minneapolis Public Schools where he led the development of new models for serving students, expanded the Response to Intervention (RtI) model and assisted develop a “value-added growth accountability model.” He also provided direction to the district’s nine chartered schools and 33 contract alternative schools. Bob is an adjunct faculty member in the education administration departments at the University of Minnesota and the University of Saint Thomas. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Saint Cloud State University.


Are Chartered Schools good schools?

by Bob Wedl

When this question is asked it is clear those asking the question don’t quite get it.  Would one ask, “Are leased cars any good?” Likely not as leasing is not a kind of car any more than chartering is a kind of school.  They are both management options to access cars and schools.  Minnesota has more management options for starting public schools than does any other state and chartering is but one of these management options.  Other management options, in addition to district-board created, include site-led (teacher-powered,) contract alternative schools, area learning centers, legislative created (Rudy and Lola Perpich School for the Arts and Schools for the Deaf and Blind), university lab schools (although Minnesota has none right now) and I would include PSEO as well. These different options are “management innovations.” Whether any of these management options result in “good schools” depends on what is created and implemented.


Why did the Minnesota Legislature enact DFL Senator Ember Reichgott Jung’s charter bill in 1991? Reichgott Jung says it was that education needed innovation and redesign and the current district arrangement was simply not doing that.  The charter law recognized that we needed both improvement of what we currently had as well as a sector whose focus was on researching new and different models.  Ted Kolderie refers to this notion in his book titled The Split Screen Strategy. Chartering was intended to be the R&D sector of public education.  One of the most significant designs researched early in the chartered sector was the concept of schools designed and led by professional teachers.  Dee Thomas, a district high school principal and Doug Thomas, a district school board member, knew the century old superintendent-principal led school was not designed to empower professional teachers.  What would happen if teachers could call the shots? Kim Farris-Berg asks in her book, Trusting Teachers with School Success. Dee and Doug led the design of “Minnesota New Country School” using the management option of chartering to help answer that question. Avalon School followed as did a plethora of others in the chartered sector.  Are these schools successful because they are public chartered schools?  Of course not.  They are successful because of what the management option of chartering enabled teachers to design.  


Part of the idea behind chartering was that when new ideas were successful, districts would leap at the opportunity to implement them.  But that did not happen. Instead almost all district boards, superintendents, principals and teachers saw chartered schools as organizations that were taking away “their students.” Former Minneapolis Superintendent David Jennings even called charter schools “the enemy.”  While some innovative thinking teachers wanted to design schools they believed would be successful, many were reticent to use chartering.  To be fair, some superintendents did as well.  Because of that, in 2009, Rep John Benson, a former Edina teacher union leader along with strong support from Mpls district union leaders Louise Sundin and Lynn Nordgren sponsored legislation that enabled districts to access the same flexibility and autonomy provisions of chartering without actually chartering a school.  This was a huge breakthrough for the district sector to be able to have the same flexibility from laws and rules as did the charter sector and teachers have the autonomy of chartered school teachers and also keep the same amount of money as district schools which is considerably more than the chartered schools.  Shocking…but no district takers.  Minneapolis tried but its internal bureaucracy stifled the one school and it closed after a year.  So the 2009 law basically went unused until Lakeville Superintendent Lisa Snyder convinced the Lakeville Board to empower Julene Oxton and several other teachers.  The movement has begun.

With education | evolving leading the Teacher-Powered Schools Network around the country, the innovation research in the chartered sector is fulfilling the real mission of the chartering option.  To research new and different models and to have the district sector replicate those that are successful.