Thanks to Los Angeles blogger Sara Roos for calling my attention to this very interesting article by journalist Rachel Cohen. We have had an extended exchange about the article.

Cohen says that the typical origin story of charter schools credits the idea to AFT President Al Shanker. She shows that the idea was percolating long before Shanker began promoting charters in 1988. The idea of public-private partnerships was in the air in the late 1980s and was the underpinning of what was called Third Way politics, as practiced by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Cohen does an excellent job of describing the milieu in which the charter idea emerged. Shanker was not its originator but he was an important publicist for the idea. Without his support, charters might never have achieved national attention.

Right-wingers today, as Cohen notes, like to credit paternity of charters to Shanker, which is amusing since 90% of charters are non-union. Charter advocates who think of themselves as progressive also cling to Shanker as their forebear, but can’t explain why the charter sector is both non-union and highly segregated.

Cohen fails to mention that Shanker renounced charters in 1993, five years after embracing them, because he realized that his idea had been sabotaged and had turned into a tool with which to bust unions and to privatize public schools. In one of the paid advertisements that he published every Sunday in the New York Times, he wrote that charters were no different from vouchers. And he denounced them.

Strangely, neither the right-wingers nor the progressive charter fans ever acknowledge that Shanker denounced what was allegedly his big idea.

It is important to recall what Shanker had in mind when he supported charters.

1. He saw them as schools-within-schools, not as independent schools operating with their own school board, nor as corporate chains replacing public schools.

2. He saw them as teacher-run schools.

3. He saw them recruiting the weakest and most alienated students, the ones who had dropped out or were at risk of dropping out.

4. He said they should not be authorized without the support of the teachers in the school where they would operate.

5. He said they should not be authorized without the permission of the local school board.

6. He expected that the teachers in the charter school, operating as a school-within-a-school, would be members of the same union as the other teachers in the building.

7. He believed that the charter should run for five years, which would allow it to try out new ideas and share them with the rest of the school.

8. He did not envision the charter school as a permanent entity, but as a five-year or longer experiment designed to allow innovation and collaboration.

9. He did not envision charters run by non-educators, entrepreneurs, corporations, and grifters.

10. He did not envision corporate charter chains.

11. He did not envision a charter industry that is 90% non-union, more segregated than district public schools, and inclined to cherrypick the most motivated students.

When he saw businesses moving into the public school sector, he realized his own ideas had been destroyed by greed.

What he thought initially was a progressive idea was captured by the Waltons, the DeVos family and others on the right who wanted to destroy public schools and unions.