Conventional wisdom suggests that the interests of teacher unions and charter schools are at odds. I believe that's wrong.
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Local 59, is breaking down barriers between teacher unions and charter schools by sponsoring the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools.
The independent, nonprofit organization was approved this month by the Minnesota Department of Education to authorize charter schools.
The Guild was launched with a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund, which invests in promising ideas proposed by local and state affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers.
It's the first union-led authorizer in the nation and joins 25 other groups in Minnesota with the authority to approve new charter schools. (Others include nonprofits, public school districts and universities.)
As professional educators and union members, we want and need to be part of the charter school conversation.
By becoming a public charter school authorizer, the Guild will approve new, high-quality charter schools and ensure that they meet high standards and help students achieve. We will also ensure that teachers are respected and have a voice in the schools where they work.
This is a perfect time and place for the Guild to operate. In order to receive this approval, the Guild had to meet very high standards, established in Minnesota in 2009, that require authorizers to adhere to national standards for charter school oversight and quality.
The original vision of public charter schools by AFT President Al Shanker was inspiring: to be true educational laboratories where great teachers explore creative new classroom approaches, motivating and helping students learn. Unfortunately, the promise of the charter movement has not been matched by reality.
Public charter schools have proliferated -- at times at the expense of educators' voices, expertise and high-quality teaching.
In fact, a 2009 study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found just 17 percent of charter schools sampled were providing students a better education than traditional public schools. The Guild aims to change that.
The Guild will ensure applicants' proposals include a clear mission, detailed curriculum, high student achievement benchmarks, healthy governance and sound finances.
But unlike many charter school authorizers, it also will seek a commitment to labor-management collaboration and emphasize educator expertise, respect and leadership.
The organization hopes to begin accepting applications for innovative new schools beginning next year.
We believe there can and should be outstanding new schools with autonomy over increasing student achievement, defining curriculum, and managing budget, scheduling, and staffing -- and that such schools can thrive while also valuing teachers' voices and empowering teachers to create a professional model.
The MFT's collaborative philosophy extends to the leadership of the Guild.
Some of the state's most prominent education leaders and activists serve on its executive board, including Joe Graba of Education Evolving; former Congressman Martin Sabo; and Ann Novacheck, a partner at Lindquist & Vennum. In addition, we've enlisted advisers from several other organizations. We hope the Guild will serve as a national model for a high-quality authorizer.
This isn't the first time, of course, that the MFT has led the way in establishing innovative, teacher-run schools. The union tried for years to launch "self-governed" schools, which give teachers a powerful role, in partnership with Minneapolis public schools.
After a decade of bureaucratic hurdles, the first self-governed French immersion school is opening on Minneapolis' North Side. In contrast, the Guild is intended to accelerate the oft-delayed process of opening schools that aim to close the achievement gap.
Charter schools are here to stay. And we, the MFT, and our new partner, the Guild, are committed to supporting outstanding teaching and learning in schools of every kind, in every school -- traditional or charter.
Nothing conventional about that.
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Lynn Nordgren is president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.