Limiting Charter Growth by Any Means Necessary

Teachers unions in Chicago and Massachusetts are doing their darndest to stop the spread of charter schools.

Amazingly, the Chicago teachers’ strike didn’t come off.  Less than 10 minutes before a midnight strike deadline on October 10th, the district and union cobbled together a deal, pending approval by the rank-and-file. One of the more contentious issues was the so called “pension pick-up.” Teachers in the Windy City are obligated by law to contribute 9 percent of their salaries to their retirement. But in fact, for 35 years the Chicago Public School district has been picking up 7 of the 9 percent. Existing teachers will continue to receive this taxpayer-hosing perk, but teachers hired in 2017 and beyond will have to pay the full 9 percent. (But then again, the newbies will get a salary bump and won’t feel the pinch.) No one yet really knows what the fiscal ramifications of the pension pick-up – or any of the other contract particulars – will be.

One thing that jumped out in the agreement is a stipulation that there will be no new charter schools opened for the duration of the new 4-year contact. You would think that in a city where just 25 percent of 8th graders are proficient in math and 24 percent are in English, that charters would be welcome. According to the Illinois State Board of Ed, attendance in the public schools of choice has doubled in the last five years – primarily in low-income areas – and now has almost 59,000 kids enrolled. The University of Chicago Consortium for School Research reports, “charter school students account for 25 percent of the city’s high school graduates but account for almost half of the students who will enroll in college.” But educating kids, you see, is not a priority for the Chicago Teachers Union.

And then there’s Massachusetts, where on Election Day, Question 2 will ask voters if they support giving the state the authority to lift the cap on charter schools. As it stands, no more than 120 charter schools are allowed to operate in the Bay State. The referendum, if successful, would give the Massachusetts Department of Education the authority to lift the cap, allowing up to 12 new charter schools or expansions of existing charters each year.

Most of us would not consider 12 new charter schools a year a radical move, but then again, most of us are not members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. With an assist from some local school boards and 275 district superintendents, the union’s main arguments against the proposition are their usual ones – charters drain money from traditional public schools, charters cherry-pick their students, yada, yada, yada.

The union’s blather is not going unchallenged, however. According to a Manhattan Institute study, while charter-school enrollment does reduce the net amount of state aid school districts receive in Massachusetts, “it increases per-pupil spending in the 10 districts with the largest number of charter-school students.” The report’s author, Max Eden, explains that while charter enrollments cost district schools over $400 million a year, after the state’s “unique reimbursement” – which he claims is one of the most generous reimbursement plans in the nation – districts are getting paid a significant amount of money for students they no longer teach. In other words, the traditional public schools have fewer students, but more money to spend on those students.

Regarding the union’s cherry-picking mantra – bad idea to use this talking point in Massachusetts. Boston is acknowledged to have the best charter schools in the country. Many use lotteries to determine which students can attend. As researcher Thomas Kane writes, “Oversubscribed charter schools in the Boston area are closing roughly one-third of the black-white achievement gap in math and about one-fifth of the achievement gap in English—in a single school year!”

The good news for the pro-charter forces in Massachusetts is that they have money flowing into the campaign, including $240,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $1.8 million from Wal-Mart heirs Jim and Alice Walton. As a result, the unions and their fellow travelers, which are being outspent, are forced to dredge up their time-honored whine about the evils of “outside money” and “dark money.”

The outside money line is amusing because the National Education Association, parent of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and headquartered in Washington, D.C., has sent $4.9 million in “outside money” to the Bay State to oppose Question 2.

The “dark money objection” is even more two-faced. In 2014, the American Federation of Teachers was outed after making an illegal $480,000 ad buy that helped propel Martin Walsh to a Boston mayoral victory over John Connolly, a longtime adversary of the teachers unions. AFT’s dark (and illegal) money groups got dinged to the tune of $30,000 for “failure to organize as a PAC, failure to disclose finance activity accurately, contributions made in a manner intended to disguise the true source of the contributions, receipt of contributions not raised in accordance with campaign law, and use of wire transfers.” (After illegally and successfully spending almost a half-million dollars, a measly $30K fine barely qualifies as a slap on the wrist.) And this “dark money” gambit was hardly a one-off for the unions.

Massachusetts legislators didn’t think much of the AFT chicanery, and in 2014 tried to pass laws requiring more transparency. The Massachusetts Teachers Association balked at the legislation, and citing “technical issues,” tried to kill it. But this past August, after two years of legislative wrangling, H.543 became law, much to the consternation of the unions.

To sum up, in Massachusetts, Chicago and a host of other places around the country, the teachers unions’ mission to limit charter growth or kill them outright goes on unabated. But, please keep in mind, they are, of course, doing it for the children. (Hey – I’ll stop saying it when they do.)

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 and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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