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Citizens League to celebrate 60 years of policy innovation

“Our goal was to bring citizens into solving the issues in new and different ways,” said Citizens League Executive Director Sean Kershaw.

The Citizens League is behind the popular Policy and a Pint series of public-policy conversations.
Courtesy of the Citizens League

For 60 years, the Citizens League has had a singular impact on Minnesota. With the simple idea of bringing all the stakeholders to the table to work on solving the big policy issues of the day, the League has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments – which it will be celebrating at an anniversary event next week.

From shepherding the Minnesota Miracle to helping create MinnesotaCare and the Metropolitan Council; from championing the nation’s first charter-school laws to promoting Metropolitan State University, from helping to change unequal property tax laws in the late 1960s to working to create a better transportation grid in the 2000s, the Citizens League has been in the middle of working to create a better Minnesota.

Sean Kershaw
Sean Kershaw

“The League was started when things weren’t working, when Minnesota had challenges that weren’t being met,” said Citizens League Executive Director Sean Kershaw. “Our goal was to bring citizens into solving the issues in new and different ways.”

This meant bringing together lawmakers and union leaders as well as CEOs of Minnesota companies and university professors. Together, these groups would write a research paper they could all agree upon, and then work to get the necessary infrastructure in place to make their conclusions a reality.

It is this history that the League will celebrate with a free public event on Oct. 25 at the Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis. The keynote speaker will be J.C Penney Co. CEO Ron Johnson, an innovator in retail sales with Target and Apple and the son of Verne Johnson, League president from 1958 to 1967. For more information, visit the League’s website. [Update: The event has sold out.]

An illustrative collaboration

One of the League’s crowning achievements was to collaborate with citizens and legislators to pass the nation’s first charter-school law. Although the 1991 bill passed in a compromised form and by only three votes in the state House, it bucked national education trends and opened the door for charter schools nationwide. Its route to passage provides an illustrative example of the League’s work and its effects.

Ember Reichgott Junge
Ember Reichgott Junge

Ember Reichgott Junge, a former Citizens League member and former state senator who championed the charter-school bill, has written a book about the experience, “Zero Chance of Passage; the Pioneering Charter School Story.” She credits Dave Durenberger in his pre-Senate days and Ted Kolderie, League president from 1967 to 1980, with promoting the pioneering theory that led to charter schools: using the government as a purchaser of services rather than a provider of services.

“It was a breakthrough in the way of thinking,” Reichgott Junge said in an interview. When “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” [PDF] was released in 1983 and raised a red flag about inadequacies in the nation’s education system, many educators and lawmakers decided that increasing education standards would improve schools. In 1988, Citizens League President Curt Johnson formed a task force to look at education reform in Minnesota. Reichgott Junge said the task force was composed of a who’s who of state leaders from education, business, nonprofits and unions.

Later that year, the task force released “Chartered Schools = Choices for Educators + Quality for all Students”  [PDF]. With Minnesota having just passed a law allowing students to open enroll among schools, the state was already a national leader in education. Open enrollment was the natural precursor to charter schools, Reichgott Junge said. “Other states were wondering what charters were, but for us it was the next logical step forward. We already had choice. What if all the choices were the same?”

League report became the template for ’91 law

The Citizens League report was the template for the eventual 1991 charter school law. “Until then, charter schools were an interesting idea,” Reichgott Junge said, “but until you map out how it will work, how traditional schools will work with them, there was nothing for the legislature to work with. The report provided us with the elements we needed to draw the legislation.”

The report’s recommendations and what lawmakers wanted in a bill weren’t a perfect match. The report focused on metro-area schools and desegregation while the initial legislation focused on school choice and changing roles for teachers, Reichgott Junge said, and she readily admits that the initial legislative efforts in 1989 and 1990 “weren’t ready for prime time.”

The Citizens League brought two ideas to the table that were new and central to the legislation. One was that charter schools would be responsible to an organization other than the local K-12 school board. “Twenty years ago that idea was ludicrous, but the Citizens League said no, a school is more than just a building,” she said. The report also recognized that students learn at different speeds and with different abilities, and teachers should adapt to the students rather than making students adapt to the system. “Districts had an exclusive franchise over students, and even if the students could open enroll, they couldn’t afford to travel across town,” she said.

Between 1988 and 1990 the charter school legislation went nowhere, she said. In another example of Citizens League involvement, Kolderie developed a working group to advance the legislation. “I introduced the legislation in the Senate (Reps. Becky Kelso and Ken Nelson introduced it in the House) and through a very unusual series of legislative gymnastics, the bill passed in the House by three votes. I am certain that if it had not survived in 1991, it would have been defeated forever (because the support was so tenuous),” Reichgott Junge said.

Bipartisan support – and national recognition

Ted Kolderie
Ted Kolderie

But the bill passed with bipartisan support, sponsored by DFLers Kelso, Nelson and Reichgott Junge and signed by Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican. Two days later, U.S. Sen. Durenberger praised the bill on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Kolderie wrote a paper about the charter-school legislation that made its way to the Progressive Policy Institute and the attention of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who issued a press release praising the law. “That’s how our charter school legislation went national,” Reichgott Junge said.

Reichgott Junge said the charter school law was passed in a compromised form and both lawmakers and the Citizens League continued to work on the law through the 1990s “until the problems were smoothed out,” she said.

Citizens League involvement was critical to the success of the nation-leading charter movement, as it has been in transportation, health care, property tax equity, the state budget, mental health care and higher education, to name a few. But the League isn’t resting on its laurels.

New issues, new formats for involvement

The League is working on reports to help higher education be effective throughout the 21st century; to make mental health care more efficient, affordable and available; to improve the financial affairs of people as they age; to improve electrical efficiency in the state before it becomes a problem; and following up on all its previous issues.

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When Sean Kershaw became the League’s sixth executive director in 2003, the organization had become somewhat fusty. “The League was built by World War II vets who got a lot of great things done,” he said. But by early 2000, membership and the activity level were down. “Millennials aren’t used to getting things done in the same way, and we had to figure out ways to get them involved.”

One way the League has reached out is to go into work places to make presentations on policy issues and promote discussion. At first, Kershaw was worried. The work force has become increasingly diversified over the years. “Talking about taxes and spending in a corporate lunchroom, we thought it would result in a brawl. But we’ve had really thoughtful conversations. It hasn’t been partisan at all. This shows that Minnesotans can talk about the issues without things blowing up,” he said.

A new generation — and Policy and a Pint

Another innovation is the Policy and a Pint series of seminars, which the League presents with The Current. The idea behind Policy and a Pint is simple: Previous League members were comfortable meeting in the early morning in a hotel conference room. That’s not the case for business leaders today. They find it much preferable to meet in the evening at, say, the Varsity Theater.

“When I became executive director, there was the question of whether young people care about policy. We found that by just changing the time and venue of our meetings, they do come, and they bring a new voice into the policy conversation,” Kershaw said.

Another challenge for the League is that the process has become more difficult. In earlier days, after a report was issued, the League would take it up to the Legislature and work with lawmakers to enact the policy goals. It’s not that simple any more. For example, as the League works with mental health policy, it not only must work on new laws but also facilities, manpower, insurance and finance. “We have to build a complete infrastructure and determine how it’s going to affect Minnesotans far into the future,” Kershaw said.

He also notes that while in the past the League worked with the CEOs of Minnesota’s largest companies, now it deals mostly on the next rung of leadership. This doesn’t trouble him at all. The economy has gone global in the last 20 years and today’s CEOs in Minnesota are global leaders. It’s only natural that state-specific issues would move to the next level of leadership, Kershaw said.

Kershaw says he looks forward to the future of the League. “We needed a new model for how to deal with policy, and we have one.”