City Academy in St. Paul, Minn., became the nation's first publicly funded, privately run charter school when it opened its doors in 1992. Its founders, all veteran public school teachers, had tried but failed to create new programs for struggling students in their own schools.
The school helped launch a movement that has since grown to 5,600 charter schools across the U.S. But back in the late 1980s, it faced strong resistance.
Milo Cutter, one of City Academy's founders, had grown frustrated at her old school, where kids dropped out in droves. Around that time, state lawmakers in Minnesota were pushing to create so-called "outcome-based" schools, later called charter schools.
Cutter saw an opportunity to open a school for kids who were lost or forgotten.
"They were older students, and as most people are aware, that's not a high-priority group," Cutter says.
But the idea of the school sparked opposition. Critics argued that publicly funded, privately run charter schools would take money away from traditional public schools. Former Minnesota State Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, who authored the first charter school law in the country, says unions in Minnesota were also opposed to the idea.
Although the nation's second-largest teachers' union had favored charters as early as 1988, Minnesota unions warned that charter schools would turn kids into "guinea pigs."
Ultimately, City Academy opened with a tiny budget and 53 students. Twenty years later, it has twice as many kids. Almost all are low-income, and many have repeatedly failed Minnesota's basic skills test. Some have been incarcerated.
Much has changed in Minnesota as a whole in the past two decades. This fall, charter schools in the state will enroll approximately 38,000 students — or 5 percent of the state's total K-12 population. Union opposition has faded, in part because teachers in traditional public schools aren't happy with the status quo, either.
Louise Sundin helped create the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, the nation's first union-funded group with the power to authorize charters. She says that in Minnesota at least, most teachers have found that charter schools can empower them, too.