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Home » News & Analysis » Commentary » President Clinton and Charter Schools: A History Lesson

President Clinton and Charter Schools: A History Lesson

History is an important aspect of life to understand. Knowing what transpired and why, who was involved and why they did what they did, drives us to emulate that which is good, and, hopefully, learn from mistakes. That’s why I ask my colleagues to appreciate, as well as tolerate, my concern over a public tribute to former President Bill Clinton, who today received the first-ever lifetime achievement award from the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

Look, it’s great that a prominent, centrist Democrat supports charters and that he knew as president that it was important to endorse the concept. But, it doesn’t change the fact that two states had already enacted charter school legislation before he even stepped into the Oval Office. In 1991, Minnesota’s Gov. Arne Carlson became the first to sign charters into law and then in 1992 California Gov. Pete Wilson followed suit.

While he was president, 15 governors pushed for laws – strong charter laws – that brought the movement to life. 10 of them succeeded. We worked with Colorado Gov. Bill Owens during this time, New York’s Gov. George Pataki, Michigan’s Gov. John Engler, Wisconsin’s Gov. Tommy Thompson, Florida’s Gov. Jeb Bush, Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Ridge and others. These Republican governors – and one Democratic governor, Delaware’s Tom Carper – led the fight for these radical choice reforms that at the time were considered too extreme by many, including some in the Clinton inner circle. When asked to weigh in with Democratic legislators who the governors were trying to cajole, Clinton advisors made it clear that they wouldn’t interfere in state politics.

When Clinton convened the governors on national goals, charters were not on the table. When the NEA convened and invited Clinton to meet with them, charters were on the table, albeit for different reasons. Reform-minded school chiefs fought to help their governors get these efforts enacted. The establishment fought and many compromises were made. The Clinton administration called for moderation, not strong charter laws.

To his credit, Clinton used his Bully Pulpit to tell the American people that charters are good for us. He said he wanted to see 2,000 charters by the end of his administration and indeed growth did occur. The effort he and Congress led to create and grow the public charter grant program helped spur the growth. Without strong laws however, the funds would not have mattered. Indeed, even as the funds have grown to this day, it is the charter law itself in each state – whether there are independent authorizers, equity funding, operational autonomy and no or a very high cap – that determines whether charters will succeed. Indeed no president – not Clinton or Bush or others since – have had the impact that an army of state lawmakers, parents, school leaders, and philanthropists have had on growth. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools recognizes a representative sample of these individuals each year and thousands of them are here at the annual conference.

But, talk of big deal leaders and caps being lifted without accounting for the quality of those contributions or changes (North Carolina’s cap lift for example also puts poisonous restrictions in the way of growth) does not help truly get more choices done. Nothing short of expecting ourselves to meet the highest standards of lawmaking, schooling and leadership will do this. Nothing short of challenging the impediments, the establishment and the acceptance of mediocre charter laws will do this.

Success requires actual accomplishment and as we teach our kids that they need to be proficient, let’s make sure we, too, are proficient before we accept our just rewards.

So let’s applaud the contributions. But, no more trophies for just showing up and joining the team.


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