Charter schools still face battles 20 years later

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PHOENIX -- This week voters turned down a measure that would have extended a one cent sales tax. Supporters say that money would have gone to education.

And while that ballot fight put Arizona's school system in the spotlight, it was another battle 20 years ago that changed Arizona’s schools more than anything else. That was when the nation’s first charter school law passed in the state of Minnesota.

Looking back Ember Reichgott Junge remembers it was not easy task,

"It was definitely a battle, and for three years there was incredible resistance to this idea," said Junge.

In her book, “Zero Chance of Passage," Junge says most lawmakers felt creating charter schools had no chance of becoming law.

“Zero chance of passage occurred, it did pass, and it is now in 41 states," said Junge.

Three years after Minnesota passed its groundbreaking law, Arizona followed suit. We now lead the nation in charter students.

Junge said she thinks it has to do in part with Arizona's free spirit.

“It takes an entrepreneurial parent, and entrepreneurial teacher, a risk taker. It is not for everybody. and it takes parents really engaged in their children's education," Junge explained.

But 20 years later, she says charters still face battles. Many people still believe they are private schools, which is not the case

“Charter schools are publicly funded, independently operated, public schools, and the basic piece of it, is we are trading regulation for results,“ said Junge. “And in the contract for charter schools they are held accountable for those results. That was key to the legislation. The legislation says if you, charter schools, don’t live up to those performance objectives, you can and will be closed. And that is an essential part, so regulation is traded for results, bureaucracy is traded for accountability and that is the basis of chartering. “

But she also said training for those who authorize and hold charters accountable has been a struggle. Something she wishes had been better thought out earlier.

Another struggle is funding for facilities, and the fact that charters do not get property tax dollars. That means finding and building good schools can be a challenge.

“I mean it has to be comfortable, it has to be air conditioned, and church basements just don't do it right," Junge stated.

There are now groups working to help schools find that funding.

And despite the challenges, Junge believes charters will continue to grow, because she says our kids deserve the right to choose success.

“So if we provide access to choices, and different choices to access, the parents have the best opportunities to provide for their kids," she said.

Junge, who describes herself as a labor Democrat, said she is not sure a charter law could be passed today.

She said it took a true bi-partisan effort, something she is not sure would happen in today’s political climate.