Who’s for Innovation? Yes—Unions!

I think one of the most well-read sections of my book about the origins of chartering is the Commentary “Coming Full Circle” written by Louise Sundin, former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and former Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

It was back in 1988 when Albert Shanker, AFT President, introduced the idea of a “charter school” to enhance teaching as a profession. As the Democratic author of the Minnesota charter school bill, I saw chartering as a way to empower teachers.

Though our goals were similar, the legislative roads to chartering diverged. And the powerful Minnesota teacher unions, led by Louise Sundin and others, vigorously opposed passage of Minnesota’s first-in-nation charter school law in 1991.

Fast forward 24 years. Today Louise is board chair of the first union-initiated charter school authorizer in the country, The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools. And The Guild’s start-up in 2011 was financed by the AFT Innovation Fund.

How did that happen?

For years, Louise and her colleagues created various unique schools “of the future,” only to have them dissolved back into the district “bureaucracy.” After successful lobbying for special legislation for site-managed schools, she and her colleagues were again disappointed when all their proposals were rejected by the school district.

So they organized a charter school authorizer that would encourage and support teachers to lead and do what they do best—create new learning strategies for learners. Today The Guild has authorized, or is working with, over 20 public charter schools in the “pipeline.”

Their vision? To be a national model for charter school authorizers by advancing the original vision of the charter school model, in which teachers are professionally organized and work to create innovative and research-based schools that rely on teacher expertise to identify and use effective teaching strategies, promote engaged student learning, create educational autonomy, ensure effective organization, and develop shared management.

The Guild has come “full circle” back to the original vision of Mr. Shanker. Talk about innovators! It is only a matter of time before more teacher unions will see the opportunity in chartering to empower teachers with the autonomy they deserve.

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