A Brief History of Charter Schools

By | September 4, 2020


   I consider it important, indeed. urgently necessary, for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their own economic status and, also generally speaking, to secure their influence in the political field.

—Albert Einstein

(Commenting on why he joined the AFT)


The charter school movement was launched by two educators with impeccable liberal credentials: Albert Shanker and Ray Budde. Shanker was president of the United Federation of Teachers (1964-1985) and President of the American Federation of Teachers (1975-1997). Ray Budde was a teacher, a Junior High Principal and a teacher of educational administration at the University of Massachusetts. Both believed that autonomous public schools run by teachers freed from school bureaucracies would improve pupil learning and increase opportunities for all.

The Journal In the Public Interest (May 23, 2019) measured the financial cost for West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) of fourteen charter schools. In The Public Interest calculated the revenue lost by the district and subtracted the savings realized by educating fewer students. “The difference between those two amounts is the net annual cost of charter schools for WCCUSD: $27.9 million…When students transfer to charter schools, funding for their education follows—but costs remain [and] districts are forced to cut services provided to traditional public-school students.”

In 1974, Budde presented his ideas for the reorganization of school districts to the Society for General Systems in a paper entitled “Education by Charter.” Budde’s paper remained largely unknown until 1988. That year, the idea of autonomous teacher-run schools was enthusiastically endorsed by more than 3,000 teachers at the 70th convention of teachers led by Al Shanker.

In 1991, the first charter school law was enacted in Minnesota, the next year California enacted the 1992 California Charter School Act. In 1993, 29 charter schools opened in California. Today in California there are more than 1,200 K-12 schools serving more than half a million students, approximately nine percent of the public-school student population. In the 2019-2020 school year, the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools in WCCUSD was 20%.

Despite a propitious start, the Shanker-Butte liberal utopian dream of teacher-run, community-based charters did not last long. Six years after Shanker’s call for school reform, he was among the first to denounce the takeover of the movement by academic bureaucrats and corporate and philanthropic entrepreneurs. In Where We Stand, his weekly column in The New York Times, July 3, 1994, he denounced the Detroit School District for …giving $4 million—for starters—to a group of people who are eager for public funds but could care less about public education.  Shanker argued that charters should not operate unconnected to the school district that sponsors them. Anticipating the reality, we face today he denounced corporate educators saying “…there are supporters of charter schools whose real aim is to smash the public school. Unless charter school legislation is carefully crafted, charter schools will not improve public education. We will see the money used to pay for educating kids whose parents are already looking after their education at home or to finance what are really private schools. And all this will take place without any public debate and totally out of the public eye. 

Ray Budde continued to champion the idea of charter schools and, like Al Shanker, he upheld the notion that charter schools should operate well within the public-school system and should never be thought of as alternatives to public education.

Charter schools are not “public schools” as their advocates often claim. Their “public” character rests solely on the fact that they receive public monies. Receiving public funds, as D. Ravitch has often observed, does not make a business a “public” one. If that were the case, the pharmaceutical industry and many others that benefit from tax-generated revenues would be “public” enterprises as well. 

What is to be done, then, to stop the encroachment of charter schools on our democratically-run system of public education?

A small but necessary initial step should be to repeal the charter of those schools that do not meet the General Provisions of the 2015 California Education Code, Part 26.8, Chapter 1, 47601. It reads as follows: It is the intent of the legislature…to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure, as a method to accomplish all of the following:

  • Improve pupil learning
  • Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving
  • Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods.
  • Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the schoolsite.
  • Provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities available within the public-school system.
  • Hold the schools established under this part accountable for meeting measurable pupil outcomes, and provide the schools with a method to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability systems.
  • Provide vigorous competition within the public-school system to stimulate continual improvement in all public schools.

Charters in WCCUSD have failed to accomplish these objectives.

September 2020