Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

When Did Charter Schools Become Controversial?

Indiana Republicans spent the last legislative session pushing charter schools expansion.  Democrats never got on board, and the conflict came to a head in Febuary when House Democrats walked out.  But charter schools haven’t always been a partisan issue.  Listen below to hear the broadcast version of the story.

For five weeks in March and April, Republican Speaker of The House Brian Bosma couldn’t get a vote on anything.

Every Democratic representative with the exception of three had left the state house, left the state the state infact, in part over a bill which would have expanded the number of charter schools in Indiana.

But back in 2001, things were a lot different.  It was Democrats who were clamoring for more charter schools.

In those days, David Harris was working closely with Indianapolis’s former Democratic mayor.

“Mayor Peterson appointed me as the Indianapolis Charter School Director, we created a charter school authorizing office, and approved Indianapolis’s first charter schools in December of 2001,” David Harris.

Peterson and Harris thought charter schools would improve education in the city and they fought in the statehouse to ensure that the city of Indianapolis would become the first municipality with the power to authorize charter schools.

So when did it all change?

Before Charter School USA sent students to fill the stage at a campaign rally for the Republican Governor of Florida Rick Scott.  Before Michigan Republicans made a push to remove a state limit on the number of charter schools which could be created.

Before all of that, there was an idea that got started in Minnesota in 1991.  And it was the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teacher’s union,that got behind this idea to create the first charter school.

And there, education policy expert David Dressler says begins the biggest irony in the history of charter schools.

“With teachers unions concerned about the growth of charters and the competition that they represented, the natural ally of the unions was the Democrats,” David Dressler.

So the very forces, which supported the earliest charter schools, ended up being their biggest opponents.  And it was a short transition.  A year after that first school appeared, Republican’s began to adopt the charter school movement.  As early as 1992 and 1993 newspaper articles started to appear with major Republic voices coming out in support of the charter schools.

“At first, charters didn’t appear to be a threat to anyone, it was kind of a novel idea, and so they lacked a lot of political baggage at that point in time,” said Dressler.

Back in Indianapolis, the tension is still visible.  At a hospital fundraiser on the city’s north side, incumbent mayor Republican Greg Ballard is glad-handing voters.  As he works through the crowd, he talks to people about the virtues of the charter school movement.

“We just gave the Mind Trust some money for these charter school incubators,” said Ballard. “Which I think is very important too, when trying to get five charter school organizations in here to create their own network of schools.”

Every point in Ballard’s five point education plan focuses on charter schools.

His opponent, Democrat Melina Kennedy, doesn’t have much to say about the city’s charter schools or charter schools in general, in spite of working for years as deputy mayor for Bart Peterson – one of the biggest early advocates of charter school expansion.

Adding to the confusion, are major national Democratic voices like, for instance the President of The United State’s of America and the US Secretary of Education who have bucked the teacher’s unions and thrown their weight behind the charter school movement.  However, many of the schools and companies continue to have strong institutional ties to the Republican Party and Republican backed organizations.


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