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Union-backed group given green light to authorize charter schools

Minneapolis local uses AFT Innovation Fund grant to support its proposal

Described as an unprecedented opportunity for teachers to approve charter schools that provide an innovative educational program and a collaborative environment, a nonprofit organization created by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers will be the nation's first union-affiliated authorizer of charter schools.

In 2010, the MFT created the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools. Last November, the Minnesota Department of Education approved the Guild's application to become an authorizer of charter schools statewide.

Lynn Nordgren, MFT president, says the Guild will tap into teachers' desire to create high-performing schools where they can work collaboratively as professionals: "We want to authorize schools that rely on teacher expertise to identify and use effective teaching strategies, promote engaged student learning, create educational autonomy, ensure effective organization and develop shared management."

There is a historic connection between the AFT and charter schools. The concept of charter schools was first proposed by former AFT president Albert Shanker in a landmark 1988 speech. Twenty-three years later, the AFT Innovation Fund awarded MFT a grant to support its proposal to become an authorizer of charter schools.

"Public schools—regular or charter—if they succeed are both good for kids and fair to teachers," says AFT president Randi Weingarten. "Charter schools were started as incubators, shaped by teachers' judgment and expertise, but they've veered off course in too many cases.

"Being an authorizer will enable the Guild to select schools that have a strong academic program, support and develop teachers, and have a collaborative culture."

The Guild will issue charters—which spell out goals for schools and how they will meet them—for both new and existing charter schools in Minnesota. In turn, it will be responsible for overseeing the schools and ensuring they meet their targets for student achievement.

The nation's first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. The state Department of Education recently became concerned about the quality of charter schools and tightened rules about which groups can serve as authorizers and how they must operate.

"The fact that the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools cleared the state's higher bar for charter authorizers makes this all the more significant," Weingarten says.

Since its creation in 2009, the AFT Innovation Fund has awarded 20 grants in groundbreaking work across the nation, including opening teacher-designed charter schools, developing a national institute to nurture labor-management cooperation, and creating online professional networks to support teachers as their districts redesign evaluation and pay systems.

Reprinted from American Teacher, March/April 2012 issue.