No, Al Shanker Did Not Invent the Charter School

By 07/21/2010

8 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

In its recent story about Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, the Wall Street Journal reminded readers that economist Milton Friedman invented vouchers, and that teacher union leader Al Shanker was supporting charter schools as early as 1988. The story sounds true because Shanker has a reputation for being the egg-headed labor union leader as committed to genuine school reform as to the organizational interest of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, the organization he headed.

But even though it is fashionable enough to credit Shanker for jump-starting the charter movement that even the Wall Street Journal is joining in, there is only a glimmer of truth to that urban legend. In actuality, Shanker did more to block charters than to advance the idea.

When putting together an account of the origins of charter schools for my book, Saving Schools From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, I had the opportunity to sort out what Shanker did and did not do for charters.  It’s true that Shanker, when first teaching in East Harlem, came to despise administrators who he felt were crushing the spirits of young teachers. So when he first encountered the charter idea advanced by Roy Budde, an unknown professor of education from upstate New York, Shanker, recalling life in East Harlem, gave charters his endorsement: “One of the things that discourages people from bringing about change in schools is the experience of having that effort stopped for no good reason,” he opined. So the Wall Street Journal story is not technically in error.

But charters only took off because others radicalized the charter concept Budde had devised. Reading Shanker’s column, Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie, at work on educational reform in Minnesota, saw potential in the charter idea. Delighted that the powerful Al Shanker had given it his blessing, they invited him to the Twin Cities to help peddle it to Governor Rudy Perpich and the state’s legislature.

But as they worked on the legislation that was eventually passed in 1991, Nathan and Kolderie fundamentally altered the charter concept.  According to the Budde model, charters were to be authorized by school districts and run by teachers. Central office administrators were to be pushed aside, but charter schools would still operate within collective bargaining arrangements negotiated between districts and unions.

Nathan and Kolderie instead proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate and apart from local district control. That opened charter doors not only to teachers but also to outside entrepreneurs. Competition between charters and districts was to be encouraged.  All of a sudden, charter schools were free of the constraints imposed by collective bargaining contracts districts negotiated with unions.

At this point, Shanker signed off, calling charters a “gimmick,” and teacher unions ever since have done their best to slow the movement down, insisting that charters be authorized only if local districts agree, as well as burdening charters with numerous regulations, including a requirement that they be subject to collective bargaining.  For Shanker and his heirs, the collective bargaining agreement always came first.

As good as the myth about Shanker’s love for charter school sounds, the story has about as little basis to it as the one about Al Gore and the internet.  Charters owe the most to two talented young men at small think tanks in the Midwest–and to Rudy Perpich, that odd-ball Minnesota governor who had the politically peculiar propensity of placing a good idea ahead of a special interest.

Paul E. Peterson is a professor of government at Harvard University and is the author of Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning.

Comment on this article
  • Peter Meyer says:


    To further substantiate your comment about Al Shanker and charters, here’s John Merrow in the December 9, 2009, issue of Education Week (Commentary):

    “Although the notion of chartering schools had been around for a few years by 1988, it was in October of that year that the charter movement was born, at a small meeting by the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca County, Minn. Among those in attendance were two New York educators, Albert Shanker and Seymour Fliegel; Ember Reichgott, a visionary Minnesota state senator; and the Minnesota educators Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie. The concept of a charter—a renewable license to innovate, free of most school district rules—was built on a simple idea: Educators would be free to carry out their dream, but would be held responsible for results.

    “I ran that meeting, and remember well the overriding spirit of optimism: Chartering would be embraced by school districts, which would use them to “incubate” best practices.

    “That has rarely happened, unfortunately. Most districts have resisted the idea of weakening their central control. And because charter teachers would no longer have an obligation to belong to a union, Shanker came to see them as a threat to union power.”

  • Kim Farris-Berg says:

    Education|Evolving (of which Ted Kolderie is founding partner) released ‘Origins of Chartering’ on our Web site October 8, 2010. We invite you to take a look:

  • […] under Governor Arne Carlson). Harvard Professor Paul E. Peterson said of Perpich in a July 2010 Education Next article, he “had a particularly peculiar propensity of placing a good idea in front of a special […]

  • […] on the assumption that his union would still be a key player. “For Shanker and his heirs, the collective bargaining agreement always came first.” Once it became clear that charter schools could be run without unions, Shanker lost his […]

  • hampsterdam says:

    You’ve created a straw man argument in this column in an attempt to disavow Al Shanker’s role in the charter school movement. No one has ever claimed that Al Shanker supported charter schools of the kind proposed by Nathan and Kolderi that employ non-unionized teachers and would compete against, rather than collaborate with, traditional public schools. It is obvious on its face that Shanker did not and would not support this type of school (and that fact needs no clarification by you or any other anti-union academic). What remains true is that Al Shanker supported charter schools as a way to test out new ideas, find those that were successful, and scale them up for implementation in surrounding public schools. He was, in this way, instrumental in the inception of charter schools.

  • […] some half-truths, but, despite the divisiveness between charters and public schools of today, he was an early supporter of the charter movement, though he might challenge its place today. He saw charter schools as an opportunity to experiment […]

  • Rita Thrasher says:

    I’m among the school reformers of the Shanker era who
    was granted a sabbatical leave from Broward County, FL to learn what Anthony Alverado had birthed in District 4, NYC.
    It was many years before the district acknowledged the 24 teacher designed schools- within-a-school that became the
    jumping board for school reforms of Shanker, Fliegel, Nathan and Kolderie.

  • Dan McConnell says:

    So entrepreneurs looked to hijack the purpose of charters-moving it away from the concept of Shanker and towards a trademark, sell, and choose your market model? I would still say Shanker was instrumental and the “free market” perverted the concept.

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    Sponsored Results

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform