The Evolution of the Charter Concept

By Budde, Ray | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of the Charter Concept


Budde, Ray, Phi Delta Kappan


Mr. Budde takes readers on a journey from his initial proposals in the early 1970s for education by charter to today's "once-in-many-generations opportunity" for educators and citizens to engage in one grand crusade to revitalize their schools and create the conditions for giant leaps in the quality of education.

Recently someone asked me how I felt about the "charter schools movement." Over the past four years I have experienced a rather gradual change in my feelings and response. "This is not what I originally had in mind" has changed to "There are more powerful dynamics at work in creating a whole new school than there are in simply restructuring a department or starting a new program." My own changed attitude stems from the realization that, with state after state passing special charter schools legislation, we now have a rapidly expanding charter school movement that is challenging the traditional form of organization of the local school district.

Initial Proposals For Education by Charter

Back in the early 1970s I developed an outline for a book tentatively titled Education by Charter: Key to a New Model of School District. I circulated the outline to a number of my colleagues and friends, some of whom were superintendents and principals, and asked them, "Does this charter concept make any sense? Is it workable? Do you know any school districts that would be willing to give this a try?"

The response: zero. Nothing. Oh, some of my friends thought the idea was "interesting." But even though there was considerable dissatisfaction with the public schools, no one felt that things were so bad that the system itself needed to be changed. Innovation was the theme of the times, and innovation could take place within the present system. Find some new idea or program, and then all that was needed was some inservice training and presto: education in your school would be improved!

It soon became evident that I was pushing something that was simply not going to happen. So I put the idea of "education by charter" on the shelf and went on to other things.

With all the studies and reports of the 1980s, I decided to take another look at the concept and try again. My efforts resulted in Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts, which was published in 1988 by the Northeast Regional Laboratory.(1) In this book I proposed that teams of teachers could be "chartered" directly by a school board for a period of three to five years. No one - not the superintendent or the principal or any central office supervisors - would stand between the school board and the teachers when it came to matters of instruction. As in my first exploration of the idea, my focus was on chartering departments or programs. No mention was made of the idea of chartering whole schools.

This time around I decided I would go beyond just sending drafts of my efforts to colleagues and friends. Copies of the book were circulated widely. Education by Charter was sent to anyone who might be interested in the reorganization of public education at the local level. Then I waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Weeks went by. Months went by.

Then one Sunday morning in July 1988, my wife, Pat, surprised me by calling out, "Hey, Ray, you've made the New York Times!" Albert Shanker in his 10 July 1988 "Where We Stand" column reported that the delegates to the 1988 national convention of the American Federation of Teachers had "proposed that local school boards and unions jointly develop a procedure that would enable teams of teachers and others to submit and implement proposals to set up their own autonomous public schools within their school buildings. . . . But what name would capture all this? . . . The best answer so far is 'charter schools,' a suggestion made by Ray Budde in Education by Charter"!(2)

New Adaptations Of the Charter Concept

This was the first of a number of adaptations of the concept of "education by charter.

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