In the last two decades of the 20th century, across the U.S., legislatures recognized a decline in academic performance in public schools. Further, students of color, low economic class, or with special needs, were found to be over-represented in the statistics of dropout and failure. Class sizes, over-worked teachers, and the public school bureaucracy were determined to be the problem, in that the system was ineffectual at dealing with individual student needs and innovating within the context of the classroom or district. In 1991, Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge passed the Minnesota Charter School Law through the State's legislature to address this problem.
The law stipulated that in order "to provide more quality learning opportunities for more students, a mechanism is needed to allow groups of teachers to develop better ways of teaching and interacting with students using different methods, technologies and ways of organizing time. Innovative programs can and should be implemented by grade level, department and program." In effect, the law provided Minnesota students and teachers with a choice.
Under the charter school system, parents and teachers have total autonomy with regard to budgets, staffing, curriculum, and teaching methods. The funding follows the student to the charter school. The school is exempted from nearly all state and local regulation, with basic exceptions like special education and desegregation. In return, teachers must meet outcome-based performance standards as agreed to in the charter. Simply put: no results, no charter. Teachers trade regulations for results, bureaucracy for accountability. If charter schools do not perform, they are closed.
After the law passed, charter schools tailored to many different student needs opened across the State. Hearing-impaired students can now live at home and attend the Metro Deaf School. At City Academy, St. Paul, which targets high school dropouts, the average student made at least three-years' academic gain in reading and math (1996-7). All of the school's 1995 graduates were accepted into college. Teachers at the environmentally focused New Country School in LeSueur design and own their learning program and provide teaching services under contract to the school. Many of the State's charter schools change grade configurations to K-12, K-8, or even ungraded grade spans. In some schools, teachers follow students into new grade levels. There is no single charter school model that dictates what to teach, who will teach it, where to locate, what hours to operate, how best to teach reading, how parents will volunteer time, or what technology will be used.
The results of the program have been impressive. Seven of ten charter schools in Minnesota report a waiting list. Surveys consistently find high support among charter school parents, teachers, and students. More than 50 percent of students report that their charter teachers are better than their previous school's teachers. Over two-thirds of parents prefer their charter school for their children. When parents rated their child's charter school against other options, they ranked charter schools higher on every single indicator, but they especially recognized the individual attention and small class size as important. Academic performance has also risen. Improvements are reported for students of all ages, races, genders, income levels, and special needs. These improvements are witnessed in students coming from public, private, or home schooling situations.
Since 1991, more than 35 states have passed laws authorizing charter schools. There are now 1,700 charter schools serving about 350,000 students nationwide. Minnesota's idea and innovation has proven to be both successful and replicable. But Minnesota is not stopping there. The State's public school system is monitoring the success of the charter schools so that it might incorporate some of the innovation and performance back into its own classrooms. In effect, Minnesota's charter schools have become both an existing solution for students and parents who are displeased with the current system, and a laboratory for the State to continually improve its education system.