A giant chartering pioneer was recently laid to rest. There have been many tributes to 88-year-old U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger (R-Minnesota) that have called out his pragmatism, innovative spirit, commitment to policy over politics, and ability to build relationships across party lines. All of that was essential to his key education legacy: creation of the federal Charter School Program (CSP).
Shortly after the Minnesota legislature passed its pioneering charter school law in 1991, Senator Durenberger introduced legislation that became the federal CSP. That legislation, enacted in 1994, has provided over $50 billion in start-up funding for thousands of charter public schools around the nation for nearly thirty years, impacting millions of students. For him, policymaking was about creating ideas and molding new opportunities for everyone. He both responded to the need for start-up funding, and essentially incorporated the language of Minnesota’s law to be an incentive for other states to pass strong chartering laws of their own.
Durenberger was a product of the same Minnesota reformist roots that generated the chartering idea. He was chair of the Citizens League Public Service Options (PSO) project prior to his election to the Senate in 1978. That project contended-far ahead of its time-that public problems should not necessarily lead exclusively to government-run programs. Instead, the government could obtain results from whomever could best provide the services, while providing necessary oversight and accountability based on outcomes.
He credited the idea to Ted Kolderie. “That whole concept of changing the role of government was very, very important,” Durenberger told me in a 2011 interview for my book, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story. “It was so unique as a way of thinking about public service that I’d have to work to find somebody that could understand it in Washington. It’s as current today as it was then, and it’s just as important.”
With introduction of this legislation, he and his long-time policy aide, Jon Schroeder, brought public school choice to Washington. Since the federal government traditionally has a limited role in education, they devised a strategically brilliant approach where the federal government offered grants to states that passed strong chartering laws, allowing state departments of education to disburse funds to approved charter applicants. Durenberger focused on three goals: 1) creating more public school choices; 2) ending the ‘exclusive franchise’ for local school boards to deliver public education; and 3) redefining public education.
His “Public School Redefinition Act” eventually helped change the nation’s view of K-12 education. Said Durenberger, “Public education shouldn’t be defined by who owns the building or who hires the teachers. It should be defined by outcomes, by the Constitution, by who pays, who must be accepted as students, and who can’t be excluded.” He saw chartering as a “middle” position between President George H. W. Bush’s support of private school vouchers and the House Democratic position of more funding.
Durenberger was pragmatic; he needed support of Democrats. He was already respected by many as a policy leader and problem-solver. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) co-sponsored the legislation along with Senator Bob Kerrey (D-NE), and Representatives Tim Penny (D-MN) and Dave McCurdy (D-OK) in the House. Republican co-authors included Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA) and Congressmen Tom Ridge (R-PA) and Tom Petri (R-WI). But the breakthrough came when “liberal lion” Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), chair of the Senate Labor Committee, came on board.
Kennedy and Durenberger earned their mutual respect through years of working together in health care. Relationships matter, and so do ideas. So when Kennedy, though a strong ally of the teacher unions, chose to support Durenberger’s bill, the two senators entered into a “colloquy” on the Senate floor to clarify their legislative intent. Kennedy read verbatim the criteria that defined chartered schools as public schools under Minnesota law. He confirmed that chartered schools as so defined would be eligible for funding under Durenberger’s legislation. And the Senators discussed a new definition of public school as one that “operates under the authority of a state or local education agency.”
Three years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Sen. Durenberger and Jon Schroeder for their oral histories for the National Charter Schools Founders Library (www.charterlibrary.org). The story resonates not just around chartering, but how skilled legislators produce bipartisan, lasting results for the people they serve.
Yes, Ideas matter! Sen. Dave Durenberger’s legacy will keep on giving for generations to come.
Written by Ember Reichgott Junge
Former Democratic Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge is author of Minnesota’s charter school law and the book Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story. She is co-founder of the National Charter Schools Founders Library.