Saturday, February 7, 2009

There go the Charter Schools

The absence of teacher unions has long been one of the defining characteristics of charter schools.

It's what leaves the teachers free to teach, without constant reference to what's in "the contract." It's what leaves school administrators free to manage, without butting heads with obstructionists within. Absent is the adversarial relationship between "management" and "workers" that unions feed on. These schools put the interest of students first, and teachers second. It's one of the secrets of their success.

Yet of late I've seen a number of stories about teacher unions infiltrating charter schools, including, in just the last few days, this story in the New York Times, about the tensions caused by one attempted takeover in New York City, and this article in the Los Angeles Times, with an eerily similar storyline.

The N.Y. Times:

"Perhaps the standoff should not be a surprise. Charter schools, which are publicly financed but operate independently, were founded in opposition to teachers’ unions; many of the movement’s supporters view union contracts as a fundamental flaw in public education that keeps ineffective teachers on the job. And KIPP, like many charters, has hired teachers without traditional training and requires long hours and weekend work, usually for extra pay.

Teachers’ unions initially ignored charter schools or viewed them as the enemy, but as the charters grew in size and influence, the unions’ feelings warmed somewhat. Green Dot, a Los Angeles-based charter network, has unions at each of its schools, including one that opened with the teachers’ union’s cooperation last fall in the Bronx.

In New York, 18 of the state’s 115 charter schools are unionized, including two in Brooklyn operated by the teachers’ union. What happens to the unionization effort at KIPP AMP is being closely watched nationally as a test of whether two powerful forces in education will cooperate, coexist or devolve into protracted battles."

Clearly, the unions, having failed to thwart the charter school movement, are adopting a new strategy, of trying to infiltrate the schools and destroy them from within, by turning them into conventional public schools, where unions, not administrators, call the shots. The unions portray these takeovers as signaling their willingness to be part of the solution, not the problem, and as proof they aren't the obstacles to innovation and excellence they obviously are. Thus the lead in the Times story (my italics added):

"With its stellar test scores and connection to a national network, the KIPP AMP charter school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, presented a ripe opportunity for the city’s teachers’ union to prove that it, too, could embrace innovation that fuels rapid improvement for students."

But a more practical, bottom-line motivation lurks behind the takeovers. The wild popularity of charters has the tide turning decisively against unions. It represents a steady drain on union membership, union dues and union power -- which is all most unions care about. Unless they find a way to co-opt charters, not only will unions experience a continuing decline in membership and money, but America will before long have two public school systems existing side my side.

One system, free from union influence, will be succeeding, while the other, anchored down by union dominance, will be failing. And that will be the most glaring evidence yet of the cancerous influence these organizations have had on American public education.

1 comment:

Carla said...

Sean: This is a frightening piece, but hopefully one that will open a few eyes. The unions never have been, and never will be, about educating children to their full potential. They are about protecting the incompentent and the lazy, maximizing benefits and pay while minimizing the amount of work they are required to do, and rewarding seniority instead of excellence. They are also vicious in attacking those who push for change. Thank you for bringing this to readers' attention.