This week the nation's public charter school community has come to Minnesota -- 4,000 strong -- to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the birth of the public charter school movement.
The National Charter Schools Conference, convened by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Minneapolis from Tuesday to Friday, will honor Minnesota's remarkable legacy, having launched the first charter law and charter school in the nation as well as the innovation and choice that this public education reform has spawned.
At the same time, much of the discussion at the conference will be focused on the next chapter of the charter movement, which is: utilizing the flexibility of the charter model to create the highest-performing public schools available to all children while at the same time "cleaning up" the charter sector by the tough-love act of closing down chronically low-performing charter schools.
In recent years, as the charter movement has grown and matured, it has evolved from its initial focus on offering innovation and choice to one that now demands the creation and replication of high-performing, high-achieving schools, particularly ones that serve students from low-income families. While innovation and choice are hallmarks of the charter movement, they can't be ends in themselves. The commitment now must be that quality is paramount and academic achievement is a reality for every child.
In city after city, the public charter school model has proven to be effective in increasing academic performance and closing the achievement gap. In the Twin Cities, eight of the top 10 "Beating the Odds" public schools are charters; in New Orleans, 13 of the top 15 public schools are charters; in Denver, seven of the top 10 public schools are charters. The charter model offers greater autonomy and flexibility than traditional school models to close the achievement gap. But the charter model only works if there is also high accountability.
While there are dozens and dozens of remarkable charter successes nationally and statewide of many different varieties -- project-based, language immersion, online, classical, performing arts -- it is true that there are too many chronically low-performing public charter schools. This is true both nationally and in Minnesota. Unless we as a public charter school community acknowledge and address this issue, critics of charters will continue to have some credibility in their opposition to public charter schools.
So as the charter movement enters its early adulthood, a slight strategic refocusing is required. Reflecting this new focus, earlier this year Charter School Partners introduced Charters 2.0, a bill sponsored by Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, and supported by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and numerous local high-performing charters.
The legislation would create the environment to launch and replicate a new generation of high-performing schools, particularly ones serving high populations of poverty -- schools like Harvest Prep and Hiawatha Academies in Minneapolis -- as well as to increase the pipeline of teachers who know how to teach in schools that are closing the achievement gap. Finally, once great new schools are in place, Charters 2.0 calls for the closing of chronically low-performing charters.
The last point is especially critical. Closing down bad schools is always controversial, but it is the right thing to do. To allow persistently low-performing schools that have failed kids for years and given them no hope for a successful life is simply immoral.
By passing Charters 2.0 in the next legislative session, Minnesota can build upon one of the nation's best charter school laws and strong bipartisan support of charters to regain its prominence as a cutting edge education-reform and charter-reform leader.
Meanwhile, this week in particular, let us pause, reflect and celebrate the remarkable contribution that many Minnesotans have made in creating and launching the nation's public charter school movement.
Todd Ziebarth is vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Al Fan is the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Charter School Partners.