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Charter-school pioneer discusses innovative ed movement at Utah conference

Published June 18, 2013 3:31 pm

Education • Former Minnesota State Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge discusses first-in-nation charter school law.
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Charter schools could not get out of the political battleground of polarized lawmakers of today.

That's according to Ember Reichgott Junge, who helped author the first charter school law in Minnesota 20 years ago.

"We had bipartisan support," Reichgott Junge said. "It also came from outside the political spectrum, from civic leaders.

"I feel something like charters wouldn't pass today because there isn't any middle anymore [in politics]."

The charter-school pioneer, who was a state Democratic lawmaker at the time, spoke during the annual convention of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools in Provo, which on Monday and Tuesday celebrated the 15th anniversary of Utah's charter school law. The conference allowed some 400 people to hone up on skills as well as honor excellence, such as George Washington Academy in St. George being awarded 2013 Charter School of the Year.

To view the award video, go to: vimeo.com/68514774.

"They are a fantastic school which focuses on building a strong foundation," Chris Bleak, the association president, said. "They focus the majority of instruction time on math and language arts but as part of the Core Knowledge curriculum, weekly lesson plans include time for art, music, social studies, science and physical education."

More and more students are attending charter schools in Utah, skyrocketing enrollment over the past decade from 1,526 students in 2002 to a peak of 50,785 youngsters this school year. That's a little more than 8 percent of K-12 Utah students.

Charters are public schools but have more leeway in how they hire staff or design curriculum than traditional public schools. For that reason, many charter schools have been able to explore new academic territory. Films about the education movement, such as "Waiting for Superman" and "The Lottery," helped spark the debate over the merits of the independent schools and how they have changed American education.

That's exactly what charters were designed to do 20 years ago, said Reichgott Junge.

"Utah in particular has a very strong and innovative charter sector," she said. "The innovation is really clear, and in Utah they're growing in a very steady and incremental way."

For example, six new charter schools are slated to open in the fall of 2014, including a high school for teen moms and another one focused on winter-sports athletes.

Reichgott Junge recently wrote a book about the charter movement called Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story.

"Good ideas in the public sector need bipartisan support," she said. "We had both Democrats and Republicans behind this."

Today, more than 2 million students attend 5,600 public charter schools throughout 42 states.


Twitter: @RayUtah —

Charter-school awards

Legislator of the Year • Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo

Director of the Year • Rick Veasey, Lakeview Academy in Saratoga Springs

Teacher of the Year • Aimee Hall, Good Foundations Academy in Riverdale

Business Manager of the Year • Jonada Munk, Gateway Preparatory Academy in Cedar City

Board Member of the Year • Pam VanWagoner, North Star Academy in Bluffdale

Lifetime Achievement Award • Kathy Thornburg, Ogden Preparatory Academy




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