Kill ‘Em or Unionize ‘Em

As charter schools have become more popular than ever, teachers unions dither about how to deal with them.

Though there are now over 6,000 charter schools in the U.S., including 1,000 in California, it’s not nearly enough to satisfy demand, as parents have awakened to the fact that many traditional public schools aren’t doing the job. According to a recent report released by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 520,000 students nationwide are on waiting lists, 50,000 of them residing in the Golden State.

Charter schools are public schools that are allowed to operate outside the boundaries of costly multilayered district bureaucracies and piles of restrictive, union-mandated rules and regulations. If a charter doesn’t perform well, it gets shut down. (Interesting to note that when failing traditional public schools are closed in Philadelphia and Chicago, the teachers unions and their fellow travelers scream, but if a charter school closes – nary a peep from them.)

Studies have invariably proven that, while not a panacea, charters outperform traditional schools. An exception was the 2009 CREDO study, clung to by the unions and other naysayers, which found that charters didn’t outperform their counterparts. But the study was criticized for using flawed methodology that produced a biased result. However, a new CREDO study did indeed show that charters outperform traditional public schools, leaving the deniers with absolutely no credible defense.

But then again, the nation’s teachers unions never needed to cite any credible data because, well, they’re teachers unions. Their concern is not the most effective way to educate children; it is protecting the jobs of every last teacher, including the incompetents and worse. And the problem for the unions is that only 12 percent of charter schools nationally (15 percent in CA) are unionized.

So, the choice for the unions is to either try to kill charters or unionize them. For example, in this video we see former New York City teachers union vice-president Leo Casey pounding the table, demanding that charters be unionized. Stanley Aronowitz, a longtime union radical, refers to charter schools as “ratty” and “should be abolished,” before adding, “…yet at the same time we should organize them.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten was in “kill” mode when she said,

We should ask ourselves why we keep pitting charter schools against neighborhood public schools — a strategy that has created little more than a disruptive churn.

But the same Randi Weingarten, in “unionize” mode, after the AFT managed to organize 13 charters in Chicago said,

This is a turning point… This has the potential to change the conversation between charter operators and teachers.

On the national stage, The Wall Street Journal reports that the unions have

… drives under way at charter schools in several large cities, including Chicago, San Diego, and Philadelphia. NEA members adopted a resolution last year that “encourages” organizing efforts in charters and directed the national office to share with local chapters “key information” about lessons from previous union drives.

Here in California, the California Teachers Association seems to be at a “kill or unionize” crossroads. As teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci writes,

The union will decide in the coming months whether to send its monthly organ, California Educator, to all active charter school teachers, to create promotional materials for distribution to charter school teachers about the joys of teachers’ unions, and to create workshops for union activists with the title “How to Unionize Charter School Teachers.”

Yet at the same time CTA

… will contemplate creating a standing committee on the problem of charter schools, reversing a recent state law that gives charters first crack at surplus school property, persuading the legislature to order performance audits of charter schools, and shutting out charters from basic school appropriations so that they would have to have their own separate source of funding.

The rationale for this latter proposal is that “The harmful impact of charter schools needs to be made transparent. Having our active members vote on this issue will both educate and make the harm done by charter schools evident.”

I’m pretty sure this stuff won’t appear in the promotional materials CTA distributes to charter school teachers, but I’m confident they’re informed enough to know that the union has been the most implacable foe of charter schools in California for more than 20 years. (Emphasis added.)

The teachers unions in CA have a long history of trying to limit charter schools. Most recently in 2011, CTA’s AB 1172 would have had a chartering authority deny a charter petition if it makes a “written factual finding that the charter school would have a negative fiscal impact on the school district.” And the California Federation of Teachers’ AB 401 would have imposed a cap of 1,450 charter schools in California through January 1, 2017. Thankfully, neither bill became law.

After the 13 charters in Chicago decided to go union, Antonucci wrote,

Congratulations to the AFT, which succeeded in persuading the operators of the 13 United Neighborhood Organization’s charter schools to remain neutral during its unionization campaign. About 87 percent of the 415 employees voted to have the Chicago Alliance of Charter School Teachers and Staff represent them.

Picking up 400 new members in a charter school network is a win for AFT and teachers’ unions in general, no doubt of it. But let’s keep our heads, shall we?

When last I checked, there were an additional 381 charter schools (net) in 2012-13, enrolling an additional 275,000 students. Charter school staffing ratios vary widely, but even if we assume an average of 20 employees per school, that’s more than 7,600 charter school staffers added in a single year – mostly non-union.

Just to illustrate how charter school growth is swamping any unionization efforts, NEA and AFT would have had to organize 47 of those 381 new charter schools just to maintain their small market share.

And keeping that market share small is of great importance to parents and children. Jay Greene, in The Wall Street Journal, writes about a Boston study by Harvard economist Tom Kane which found that,

… students accepted by lottery at independently operated charter schools significantly outperformed students who lost the lottery and returned to district schools. But students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit. (Emphasis added.)

When charter schools unionize, they become identical to traditional public schools in performance. Unions may say they support charter schools, but they only support charters after they have stripped them of everything that makes charters different from district schools.

Millions of charter school parents – those who have their children enrolled and those on wait-lists –  have come to realize that their goals are way out of sync with the “kill or unionize” mob. The war between teachers unions and parents wanting to have their kids opt out of failing schools is in full swing and intensifying.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

1 reply
  1. Bruce William Smith says:

    We need more helpful rhetoric so that teachers and parents can end up on the same side, which is that of our children. Nonetheless, at present, the next step should be for the more reformist wing of a group like the AFT to clean out anything in their operations that produces results like the Boston study cited by the Wall Street Journal, since working with unionized teachers should benefit students more, not less, than attending non-unionized chartered schools.

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