Thursday, April 23, 2009

Charter Schools at Risk

The New York Times on Monday offered a compelling portrait of Kashi Nelson, who teaches at a Brooklyn charter school targeted for takeover by teachers unions. Nelson first opposed and then embraced and then opposed unionization again, personifying a struggle for the heart and soul of charter schools taking place across the country.

Explains the Times:

"Ms. Nelson’s shift from union skeptic to supporter and back again provides a glimpse of the complicated and tense dance between charter schools and unions unfolding across the country.

As the number of charter schools in New York City and elsewhere swells, unions have become increasingly aggressive in trying to organize their teachers. These two major forces in education politics, having long faced off in ideological opposition, have begun in some places to enter tentative and cautious partnerships, and in others to engage in fierce combat. New York City’s teachers’ union now runs two charter schools in Brooklyn and workers have organized at many more, including more than a dozen across New York State.

Some of the most adamant supporters of charter schools say that the teachers’ union is simply trying to stymie their growth by increasing the regulations on their operation; union leaders, on the other hand, say they are just trying to ensure that teachers are given fair pay and clear guidelines for how and why they could be dismissed."

Having largely lost the battle to stop the schools, unions have adopted a new strategy -- of destroying them from within by infiltrating and organizing their staffs. And with legislation pending before Congress that would make unionizing the workplace as simple as gathering enough signatures -- the so-called card check bill -- this assault on the independence of charter schools is only likely to spread and escalate.

Freedom from union influence is one of the distinguishing characteristics of charter schools; indeed, it's one of the secrets to their success. 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 upon. These schools put the interest of students first and teachers second. And that's why unions want to obliterate that distinction.

Teachers have a choice of working at a charter school or a conventional public school. They're intelligent enough to understand the trade-offs involved. Many choose the former over the latter because of the apathy and antipathy unions frequently bring to the workplace. Thus, the idea that unions are coming to the rescue of beleaguered charter school teachers is ridiculous.

Many of these teachers have fled to charters to escape the unhealthy and unproductive influence of unions, as Nelson was when she took the job in Brooklyn. But the unions refuse to let charter schools and charter school teachers (not to mention charter school students and parents) go their own way, insisting that uniformity, conformity, lethargy and mediocrity permeate public education in America, without exception.

If allowed to go unchecked, the union takeover of charters schools threatens to undermine and eventually destroy one of the few real innovations American public education has enjoyed in recent times.

But a more practical, bottom-line motivation also lurks behind the takeovers. The 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 anyway. 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:

Craig Cox said...

As you wrote, most teachers understand the corrupting and innovation-destroying impact of teachers' labor unions, so even when Arlen Specter folds and card check becomes law, let's hope that charter school teachers will refuse to ask for union representation.

It is important to track and loudly publicize the performance of charters before and after they unionize (for those that do) so that the public can clearly see the negative affect that labor unions have on the performance of these schools. We can't keep allowing the public to believe that teachers' unions have anything at all to do with education.