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Key actors in formation of charter-school law to gather at 'Zero Chance' launch

Thursday afternoon at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the line of people waiting to have their books signed snaked down the central corridor past a series of large meeting rooms where the National Charter School Convention was taking place, past a FedEx Office Business Center and behind an information kiosk where a city employee sat, mostly dispensing advice about the Mall of America.

The author the people were patiently waiting to meet: James Patterson? Neil Gaiman? J.K. Rowling?

Ember Reichgott JungeEmber Reichgott Junge

The woman in the bright pink suit at the center of it all was, in fact, former state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, inscribing copies of “Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story.” The people patiently awaiting an audience doubtless knew she also authored the nation’s first charter school legislation, and that her book’s recent publication was timed to coincide with its 20th anniversary.

It’s a good bet, though, that none of them knew the whole story of the law’s uphill climb. Indeed, Reichgott Junge herself didn’t. Motivated by the multiple myths and misconceptions that surround chartering, she interviewed more than a dozen people on both sides of the debate in preparation for writing the book.

Part historical narrative, part memoir

The result is a remarkably compelling work, part historical narrative, part political memoir. Reichgott Junge begins at the start of the education reform movement of the 1980s, laying out the genesis of Minnesota’s post-secondary enrollment options law, which allows high-schoolers to take courses at colleges and universities, and its unprecedented open-enrollment law.

Zero Chance of Passage book coverWith a storyteller’s flair, she narrates the 1988 dinner at Madden’s resort where erstwhile American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker brought up the concept of chartering, describing how she sketched out the bill’s first rough draft on a napkin.

The following meticulously sourced 200 pages are packed not with policy speak but with the voices of advocates from a number of sectors who engage in a debate that zigs and zags from the visionary to the self-interested. And a handful of recently penned, forward-looking appendices from various players back then frame the next 20 years.

Whatever your politics and your feelings about charter schools, it’s probably impossible to read “Zero Chance” without recognizing familiar battle lines. Many of the Republican lawmakers in this 20-year-old tale would like public institutions to look more like the private sector. Labor would like the status quo or better, and DFLers who got to office with its help struggle to decide whether and when to publicly break ranks. A handful of centrist voices, meanwhile, toil, tortoise-like, for change.

Public-policy junkies and education-watchers alike will likely find “Zero Chance” both irritatingly familiar and refreshing. Good, bad or indifferent, whatever preconceived notions readers have about charters when they pick up the book, there’s zero chance they’ll close it without learning something new.

Book launch party

Want a taste of the war stories in the book? Or maybe Reichgott Junge’s signature on your own copy? Join her Tuesday (today) June 26 at the downtown Minneapolis Barnes & Noble, 801 Nicollet Mall, from 5-7 p.m. for a book launch party.

A number of the key actors in the story will be present, including former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, who ushered through the subsequent federal charter law; his former aide and current policy advocate Jon Schroeder; current and former Minnesota Sens. Ron Dicklich and Gen Olson; former Citizens League head Ted Kolderie, to whom Rerichgott Junge gives much credit for the advancement of the concept; Milo Cutter, who opened the first charter school in St. Paul in 1992; and Joe Nathan, a nationally known charter advocate and author of several books on education reform.

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Comments (3)

It seems disingenuous at best

It seems disingenuous at best to mention Al Shanker in the genesis of the charter movement without adding that by 1991, I believe, he had turned against the movement because it had been hijacked by forces of privatization. Shanker wanted a *limited* charter movement guided by teachers to focus on experimentation ONLY that would lead to new methods that would be adopted by regular public schools. He explicitly did NOT want charters to compete for students with regular public schools. But with the failure of the voucher movement (especially via referenda) the privatizers and haters of school teacher unions recognized a better vehicle for their agenda via charters.

UofM Study

Professor Orfield at the UofM has studied charter schools. His conclusion is that they have not accomplished as much as promised and for the most part get little oversight which has led to significant accountailbity problems. There have been success stories but the failures have been significant.

Focus?

Aren't there other education stories to tell in Minnesota besides heroic tales of charter schools and their advocates?