Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Charter Schools Should Fear "Card Check"

Efforts by teachers unions to infiltrate, take over and destroy charter schools from within are at this point scattered and sporadic; something confined to a few urban areas, like New York City and Chicago, where the unions are honing their tactics and rhetoric. But expect these brushfire battles for the heart and soul of charter schools to become a full-scale assault -- an inferno that could consume the charter school movement itself -- if a federal "card check" measure (more formerly and ironically called the Employee Free Choice Act) is approved by Congress.

The focus of most debate on the issue has been card check's ramifications for the country's business climate -- on whether making it easier to unionize the workplace, by taking away secret balloting, will lead to the resurgence of a union movement that only a few years ago seemed on the ropes. But an even greater concern should be what card check will do to U.S. charter schools, which unions haven't been able to stop but are now intent on co-opting and corrupting.

Card check's implications for U.S. public education is something that hasn't been adequately examined.

The lack of union influence is one of the defining characteristics of a charter school. It's part of what allows them to innovate and excel and hold teachers accountable for performance in the classroom. It's one secret to their success. But teachers unions that long scorned the schools, and tried to block or marginalize them, now understand that the charter school movement isn't going away, so they've adopted a new strategy: If you can't beat 'em, wreck 'em.

Instead of sabotaging charters from the outside, the new gambit is to undermine them from within, by burrowing in, organizing the staff, and letting union-inspired inertia do the rest. The passage of card check would greatly facilitate and hasten that process, laying the groundwork for an all-out, national assault on charter school independence.

Where can we look for a preview of what card check might mean for charter schools? We can look to Chicago, where one effort to unionize 3 charters is making headway, helped along, not coincidently, by a card check system in Illinois that would go national if Congress passes the bill. This report on the Chicago Public Radio Blog, recounting the efforts of one charter school company to fend-off a union takeover, tipped me off to the wider, national implications.

The company that operates the charter schools is appealing the union takeover to the National Labor Relations Board, claiming it isn't legit because there was no secret balloting, which violates (current) federal law. The unions argue that Illinois law -- which doesn't require a secret vote, but simply that a requisite number of pro-union signatures be gathered -- should apply. These are the rules that will be in force nation-wide if card check is approved.

"Under federal law, the three charter campuses fighting for union representation would have to hold an election to determine whether teachers want the union," according to the report. But "state law doesn’t require an election at the schools, because a majority of teachers have already signed union cards."

While the card check debate is now mostly viewed as a battle between unions and business, backers of the measure may have an even bigger trophy in mind -- the debasement, denuding and eventual destruction of the greatest recent innovation in American public education. Perhaps if the growing number of American charter school families come to realize that they have a dog in this fight -- and that their charter school could become just like every other public school if card check passes -- the tide can still be turned against this terrible piece of legislation.

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