No, Al Shanker Did Not Invent the Charter School

In its recent story about Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, the Wall Street Journal reminded readers that economist Milton Friedman invented vouchers, and that teacher union leader Al Shanker was supporting charter schools as early as 1988. The story sounds true because Shanker has a reputation for being the egg-headed labor union leader as committed to genuine school reform as to the organizational interest of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, the organization he headed.

But even though it is fashionable enough to credit Shanker for jump-starting the charter movement that even the Wall Street Journal is joining in, there is only a glimmer of truth to that urban legend. In actuality, Shanker did more to block charters than to advance the idea.

When putting together an account of the origins of charter schools for my book, Saving Schools From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, I had the opportunity to sort out what Shanker did and did not do for charters.  It’s true that Shanker, when first teaching in East Harlem, came to despise administrators who he felt were crushing the spirits of young teachers. So when he first encountered the charter idea advanced by Roy Budde, an unknown professor of education from upstate New York, Shanker, recalling life in East Harlem, gave charters his endorsement: “One of the things that discourages people from bringing about change in schools is the experience of having that effort stopped for no good reason,” he opined. So the Wall Street Journal story is not technically in error.

But charters only took off because others radicalized the charter concept Budde had devised. Reading Shanker’s column, Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie, at work on educational reform in Minnesota, saw potential in the charter idea. Delighted that the powerful Al Shanker had given it his blessing, they invited him to the Twin Cities to help peddle it to Governor Rudy Perpich and the state’s legislature.

But as they worked on the legislation that was eventually passed in 1991, Nathan and Kolderie fundamentally altered the charter concept.  According to the Budde model, charters were to be authorized by school districts and run by teachers. Central office administrators were to be pushed aside, but charter schools would still operate within collective bargaining arrangements negotiated between districts and unions.

Nathan and Kolderie instead proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate and apart from local district control. That opened charter doors not only to teachers but also to outside entrepreneurs. Competition between charters and districts was to be encouraged.  All of a sudden, charter schools were free of the constraints imposed by collective bargaining contracts districts negotiated with unions.

At this point, Shanker signed off, calling charters a “gimmick,” and teacher unions ever since have done their best to slow the movement down, insisting that charters be authorized only if local districts agree, as well as burdening charters with numerous regulations, including a requirement that they be subject to collective bargaining.  For Shanker and his heirs, the collective bargaining agreement always came first.

As good as the myth about Shanker’s love for charter school sounds, the story has about as little basis to it as the one about Al Gore and the internet.  Charters owe the most to two talented young men at small think tanks in the Midwest–and to Rudy Perpich, that odd-ball Minnesota governor who had the politically peculiar propensity of placing a good idea ahead of a special interest.

Paul E. Peterson is a professor of government at Harvard University and is the author of Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning.

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