Putting Charter School Conspiracy Theories to Rest

Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story
by Ember Reichgott Junge
Beaver Pond Press, 2012, $20; 388 pages

As reviewed by Michael McShane

For years, I’ve had a kind of morbid curiosity about conspiracy theories. Maybe that’s because Wikipedia has granted such easy access to descriptions of them. Or maybe it’s because I enjoy watching Mythbusters so much. Perhaps there is some part of me that wants to believe that there is more to the world than meets the eye.

In education policy circles, the “charter schools are a plan by ultra-conservatives to privatize the public school system” is a conspiracy theory that is quite popular. It’s no Chupacabra, but prominent education commentators like Diane Ravitch have publicized such sentiments in some form or fashion for several years now.

Ember Reichgott Junge’s book Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story, like Jaime and Adam of Mythbusters, puts that theory to rest. Sorry folks, but the idea of charter schools came from educators and civic leaders of all stripes.

Reichgott Junge, an 18-year Democrat-Farm-Labor (DFL) representative in the Minnesota State Legislature, was the author of America’s first charter school bill. Inspired by a lecture from Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers (whom Reichgott Junge heard describe charter schools as “the best answer so far” to the ills of the American education system) she worked with civic leaders and fellow representatives to draft and implement a bill granting greater autonomy for a subset of the North Star state’s schools.

After Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas at the time, saw what was going on and called charter schools a “New Democrat Idea,” they were off and running. Reichgott Junge’s work has been replicated in states all across the country in a movement that now enrolls more than 2 million students in over 5,600 schools all across America.

For those interested in the politics of charter schools, Reichgott Junge’s description of her fraught relationship with her state’s teachers unions was fascinating. She was and is an unapologetic liberal, but that in no way stopped the local, state, and national wings of teachers unions from attempting to block her plans and opposing her candidacy, first at the state level in 1992, and later in her quest for a congressional seat in 2006.

Reichgott Junge marshals private correspondences, flyers and mail pieces, and conversations with union lobbyists to demonstrate that teachers unions opposed charter schools–and the non-unionized teachers that they could employ–the moment the schools started to become a real threat to the unions’ power. In fact, in a letter she quotes from Shanker to Ted Kolderie, a fellow architect of the charter bill, Shanker complained that “the architects of the bill had [not] worked out the collective bargaining issues with the teachers unions” which he said was “certainly not an approach designed to make friends” (pg. 167-68).  The local chapter of the AFT was even more direct, telling her that they would not support any bill that allowed charter schools to “contract out teaching services to agencies or groups which are not part of the teachers’ bargaining unit” (pg. 114).

Watching a lifetime DFL’er respond to such obstructionism offers an interesting perspective on the cleavages in the generally center-left, Democratic Leadership Council-driven coalition that built support around charter schools.  For a long time, Reichgott Junge genuinely believed that she would be able to get unions on her side and she was shocked each time unions devised a new tactic to oppose the expansion of charter schools.

A grain of salt is called for when reading the account of a highly politicized event through the lens of one of the participants. For all of the upsides of an insider account—the whispered conversations, the exact wording of communiques between key parties, the personal backstories—there is the risk that we are getting a particular slant on the story. For the vast majority of the account, Ms. Reichgott Junge avoids such problems, but it was clear in several parts of the book that she was (and is) a politician.

One such example is an incongruous tirade against school vouchers. Reichgott Junge includes a chapter about two thirds of the way through the book explaining why charter schools are not “vouchers lite.”  This chapter includes the phrase “Chartering gives incentive to strengthen our public schools. Private school vouchers give incentive to abandon them” (pg. 200). For someone who spent so much time excoriating her opponents for giving short shrift to the complexities of the arguments that she was making for charter schools, I was quite surprised to see such a glib denunciation of vouchers. It read like a politician trying to score points.

Moreover, her criticisms of voucher programs are often off the mark. Her claim that, “private schools neither abide by state regulations nor are required to commit to performance standards or outcomes” (pg. 201) is not true. The three largest non-special needs school voucher programs (Milwaukee, Indiana, and Louisiana) all require participating schools to take the same standardized tests as the public schools.

Similarly, when she says that charter schools are more “inclusive” because private school tuition is higher than most voucher amounts and “families receiving vouchers must still raise the remainder of the tuition” (pg. 202) she incorrectly characterizes almost every voucher program in America. Only the Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Ohio EdChoice scholarships require parents to meet the difference between the voucher amount and tuition, and that only applies to families with incomes more than 200% higher than the federal poverty line.

This foray into voucher-bashing seriously detracts from what otherwise was an informative and engaging read.  Those interested in the origins of charter schooling would be well served to read it.

Michael McShane is a research fellow at AEI and co-author of President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political.

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