CharterFolk X Vol 2.7 – Gary Hart, The Bridge from Minnesota to a Nationwide Movement

Good Morning, CharterFolk.

Today we pay tribute to a person who has been the very definition of CharterFolk Extraordinaire since before there were even charter schools – Senator Gary Hart, the author of California’s landmark charter school law.

Senator Hart’s passing has generated widespread attention in the press.

Many of the stories, like this good one at EdSource …

… stress the traits that Senator Hart was known for, traits which seem in such short supply in today’s politics: thoughtfulness, adherence to principle, and just plain common decency.

[Former California State Board Member Sue Burr] said, he was effective because people trusted and admired him. “He was a person of incredible integrity and thoughtfulness. He had a very clear sense of his own principles and ethics, and that’s how he lived his life,” she said. “But he was also a wonderful listener, really taking in everybody’s points of view.”

“Gary said that a real profile in courage is when you can sometimes speak truth to power, to your base. Throughout his career, Gary was known for taking gutsy stands, even when influential lobbies or expediency indicated otherwise,” said Eric Premack, executive director and founder of the Charter Schools Development Center, and an adviser to Burr and Hart on the charter legislation.

I did not get to know the Senator as well as many others did, but I did enjoy my chances to meet with him. Suffice it to say, that whenever I had an opportunity to spend time with Gary Hart, I knew I was in the presence of someone who towered over me, both figuratively …

… and literally.

I had known of Senator Hart’s illness for some time, and so, was very glad to have gotten a chance to speak with him last spring in an interview with Senator Ember Reichgott Junge.

Afterwards, I reflected on what I had learned from that discussion.

I had known for decades that California’s charter school law had been approved through a once-in-a-generation parliamentary maneuver in the legislature. What I hadn’t fully grasped, and what the interview made plain, was that the maneuver had allowed Senator Hart’s bill to get through unamended.

The importance of this really can’t be overstated.

In Minnesota, the state where the country’s first charter school law passed, the bill had gone through a torturous legislative process and wound up being terribly compromised in the end. Only eight schools were permitted and all the schools had to be double-approved by the local school district and by the state board of education. The bill’s limitations were so severe that Senator Junge reported in Zero Chance of Passage …

… that the dominant emotion she, Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie felt after its passage was deep disappointment.

Meanwhile in California, because Senator Hart’s bill …

…had avoided a legislative process that would have inevitably resulted in similar compromises if not an outright stoppage, something electrifyingly different made it through.

100 charters were approved.

Applicants could go to any school district in the state to get a charter approved, not just their local school district, and districts were required to act on submitted petitions within 60 days.

Applicants had appeal rights to the county.

Applicants were protected from school districts making arbitrary decisions to deny the approval of charters.

And finally, the statute had the “mega-waiver” …

… a provision stating that, unless something was specifically stated in the charter law, a charter school was exempt from compliance with California’s entire gargantuan education code.

These were completely out-of-the-box notions, CharterFolk, and, incredibly, they actually made it through into statute!

This is the way Senators Junge and Hart described the Minnesota/California one-two punch in our interview last spring.

Junge: Minnesota was always considered an outlier on education and public school choice and post-secondary options but when it went to California, that was a big deal.  And when it was signed into law in that state that’s when it really took off.  So I think it was like the one-two punch there, Gary, that without you it wouldn’t have happened ….

Hart: Thank you for giving credit to California because we’re such a large state, but when I was thinking about introducing this bill, it seemed so … um … out of the ordinary and perhaps laughable to a lot of people, I really questioned whether or not this was a measure worth pursuing.  And when I learned that Minnesota had not only introduced a bill but it had become law the previous year, that gave me the backbone to move forward with the bill and not feel that I was going to be the Lone Ranger. So we owe a lot to Ember and to Minnesota for being the true pioneers, and in this instance we were pleased to be second fiddle to Ember and add our population weight to what was going on in the charter movement. 

To be precise, I would describe the “one-two punch” as the following:

  • Minnesota’s accomplishment was showing that charters were politically viable.
  • California’s accomplishment was showing that charters could redefine what was politically possible.

Once the possible was redefined, all it took was for the next torch to be lit, and as our interview last spring demonstrated, Senator Hart himself did the lighting.

And I must say, one of the interesting things, as soon as the legislation was passed in California or shortly thereafter, I got a call from Governor Romer’s office and they asked me to come to Colorado and to meet with the governor.  And I came and spent a couple of hours with Governor Romer and, boy, shortly thereafter things started moving in Colorado.  So the momentum was there in the early 90’s and the rest is history.

To underscore just how much impact Senator Hart must have had on Governor Romer during his time with him, check out Romer’s comments before the Colorado legislature a few months later.

Starting at the 15 minute mark.

I support the development of a charter school program. Charter schools can promote innovation and choices in education, and can bring together many components of reform. It’s not the only way to go.  It’s not the silver bullet.  It’s just one way to go. In a charter school, the parents and teachers and interested persons would be authorized to create and operate their own educational program free from excessive regulation. The mission and teaching style of the school would be set through a contract that holds the school accountable to specific high performance standards for students. As I said, they are not a silver bullet, but they can give us an opportunity to experiment, to re-examine.  Obviously, the intent is not to privatize public education.  It is to help reform public education. Done correctly, I believe this option will ignite debate within districts about new and effective ways to create learning atmospheres for students.  Now, it’s not enough in my judgment to create a series of isolated pilot schools. If we are really to change the system, we have to create a critical mass of bold new schools. Thus, as an extension of charter schools, we should look at designing super charter networks that would provide an umbrella of technical expertise and economies of scale.

Super networks of charter schools?

Coming from the Governor of Colorado?

Not just one of the most influential Democrats in the country …

… but the Chair of the National Governors Association, no less!

This was the new “politically possible” that Senator Hart’s bill had redefined.

It all came about because he had seized a moment of unprecedented opportunity.

It’s a story that has been told many times, perhaps best so in a remarkable interview between Ember Reichgott Junge, Eric Premack, Sue Burr and Senator Hart …

… hosted by the National Charter Schools Founders Library.

The whole discussion is phenomenal, but for our immediate purposes, the place to focus is on the 19:40 mark when Senator Junge …

…. asks how in the world this legislative jujitsu, as Senator Hart described it, was pulled off. It was a slight of hand that Eric said he didn’t even know was happening despite the fact that he had been in the building at the moment the magic was taking place. It was a circumstance leading Senator Hart to say that …

It was the first time in the history of the legislature that Eric Premack hasn’t known what’s going on.

… which, of course, elicits a moment of great laughter in the interview.

But here’s my favorite part of the exchange. It comes when Senator Hart explains what happened at the critical moment.

This is my version. You might want to check with Delaine Eastin, who was the person from the other house and had the competing bill. We had an agreement that these bills would go to conference and we would work out these difficult disagreements. And so we were scheduled to go, I recall, at 8:00 in the morning …. I get a call from Delaine Eastin at about twenty to eight … and she informed me that there really wasn’t anything to talk about because Willie Brown, who was the Speaker of the Assembly, had told her that there’s nothing to negotiate. I’m not going to allow you to deal with these contentious issues of collective bargaining and credentialing issues and other matters. And I sort of blew up on the phone and said, “Delaine … we agreed that we were going to have a serious negotiation. We’ve been preparing for this for the whole time …. And she said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” And so I hung up the phone and was pretty upset about it …. So we designed what I call this legislative jujitsu to finesse the process because we had an agreement that we were going to go to conference, and I felt that Delaine Eastin has abrogated that agreement by saying no.

You see what I’m getting at here, CharterFolk?

It’s a moment that harkens back to the traits in Gary Hart that so many are appreciating at this time of his passing.

His thoughtfulness. His adherence to principle. His just plain common decency.

You see, it wasn’t enough to Senator Hart that he would win this policy fight. It also mattered to him how he would win it.

He had to feel certain that he had adhered to the highest levels of integrity, even if the other side had never been serious about doing the same.

It’s a recognition that all of us in the charter school movement should take deeply in – this notion, that, at the very origins of our movement, there has always been, not just an urgent striving for the policy breakthroughs that we know our kids and communities need in order for public education to improve, but also a deep caring for how we bring those wins about so that all parties can ultimately come back around the same table in support of kids.

In adhering to this ideal, Gary Hart helped bridge our movement from something barely alive in Minnesota to something that spread across the nation with a momentum that few thought even possible.

We say here at CharterFolk, that “CharterFolk are the heart of the charter school movement.”

This week is a time for us all to remember that “at the heart of our movement” we find, of course, a Hart.

Gary Hart.

An extraordinary person, who made an extraordinary contribution at an extraordinary moment, unleashing what has proven to be the most extraordinary reform of public education in our lifetimes.

And so, among the many other things we celebrate about the life of Gary Hart this week, we celebrate also that he modeled for us all, going back to the very origins of our movement, what it means to be a CharterFolk Extraordinaire.