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This fall, more than two million students will be enrolled in charter schools. Those are big numbers for a movement that is barely 20 years old. The schools are publically funded, privately run institutions that operate more like a parallel school system in some places. Still, the quality of these schools and their record of success are mixed. The charter school movement is now at a crossroads. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the first of two reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: At this year's charter school convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota - the birthplace of the movement - vendors sounded almost giddy about the millions of dollars charter schools spend every year. From graphing calculators to playground equipment...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They're all designed initially to prevent serious head injuries.

SANCHEZ: ...to packaged curricula and risk management services.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: General liability, sexual abuse, molestation, property, worker's compensation.

SANCHEZ: Charter schools today are big business.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Is there a lot of money to be made from charter schools? If they order from us, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SANCHEZ: The public and private money that's going into charter schools, though, is not the main reason for their remarkable growth, says Ted Kolderie, considered by many the godfather of the charter school movement. He says charters have grown because of the need for real options for kids who haven't done well in traditional public schools.

TED KOLDERIE: Chartering is the opportunity for radically different approaches to learning to come into public education. And that's why one of the major threats currently is coming from people who don't want radically different models, who simply want the old model done better. And this is today the central debate going on within the charter movement.

SANCHEZ: Kolderie, a former journalist turned academic, designed and helped pass the nation's first charter school laws - first in Minnesota in 1991, despite formidable opposition, and not just from teachers' unions.

KOLDERIE: School board associations, superintendents' associations, principals' associations - the whole array of organizations regarded in most states as the most powerful at the capital. So, the opposition wasn't just something that the unions led.

SANCHEZ: Ironically, says Kolderie, it was a top union leader, Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who first endorsed and promoted the concept of charter schools in the spring of 1988 in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

(APPLAUSE)

AL SHANKER: We're meeting here today and I'm addressing you because it is time once again to take a major step forward in trying to improve the schools of our nation.

SANCHEZ: It was Shanker's response to relentless political attacks, namely by the Reagan administration, that blamed unions for the dismal quality of public schools described in the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk." But the school reform movement born of that report, Shanker argued, was so feeble it was bypassing 80 percent of the nation's public school students.

SHANKER: And therefore, I would like to make a proposal today. We now need to seek ways that will enable any group of teachers in a building and parents of children to opt for a different type of school, a totally autonomous school within that district. We in the American Federation of Teachers intend to make this work.

SANCHEZ: Shanker never used the word charter in that speech, but he quickly realized members of his union did not fully understand or support the concept.

LOUISE SUNDIN: It was received with skepticism, if not outright hostility.

SANCHEZ: Louise Sundin, former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, was on Shanker's executive council at the time. With teachers choosing to be on the sidelines, Sundin says the charter school movement was eventually hijacked by groups intent on destroying unions, making money or both.

SUNDIN: There's been a concerted, well-funded attack on public school educators by folks who don't want public education to exist, would rather it be privatized for profit.

SANCHEZ: Joe Nathan disagrees. He's been advising governors and state lawmakers on school choice legislation since the 1980's. If there was a right-wing conspiracy, says Nathan, why would President Obama, Bill Clinton and many in the civil rights community support charters?

JOE NATHAN: So, it's far beyond a left or a right or a Democrat or Republican idea; it's an American idea. It's an American idea, and I think that's so fundamental to understanding why this idea has taken off. It strikes people as fair, it strikes people as reasonable that groups of parents and teachers would be allowed to create new kinds of public schools open to all kinds of kids.

SANCHEZ: Nathan heads the Center for School Change in Minneapolis, which receives millions of dollars from corporations, foundations and advocates of school choice. And, yes, says Nathan, the money that has flowed to charter schools has attracted a few bad, greedy people.

NATHAN: There flat-out are some crooks. There are people over the last 20 years who have made terrible, illegal use of money. We need to do a better job of dealing with the crooks and the charlatans of which we certainly in this movement have our share.

SANCHEZ: According to the National School Boards Association, for-profit organizations today run about 12 percent of all charter schools; nonprofits 20 percent. The rest, 68 percent, are so-called mom and pop charters run by parents and community groups. Some are doing really well; others are doing quite poorly. Most charter schools, though, are doing no better than traditional public schools. Ted Kolderie says they're just not being innovative or radical enough in their approach to teaching and learning.

KOLDERIE: You know, the concept of autonomy at the beginning was to be free to try new models, including different concepts of what was meant by achievement, performance and success.

SANCHEZ: So, if charters are simply doing what everybody else is doing and no better than regular schools, should they exist at all? Kolderie says that's the crucial question the charter school movement is grappling with as it moves forward. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

SIMON: And tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION Sunday, the story behind the small Minnesota high school that helped launch the charter school movement.

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