A Charter School Needs a Union Like a Salad Needs Hemlock
Last month, teachers at Englewood on the Palisades Charter School in New Jersey decided to unionize. Then last Friday, Steve Gunn, director of Michigan’s Education Action Group, had an op-ed in the Newark, NJ-based Star-Ledger in which he rightfully laments the decision.
Charter schools are public schools that are allowed to bypass many of the school district and teachers’ union rules and regulations that strangle our public schools in a never ending stream of red tape.
The two national teachers’ unions have taken a divergent stance toward this type of school. The National Education Association website is full of stories about the alleged inferior quality of charter schools and their lack of oversight and wants no part of them. The other union, the American Federation of Teachers, is a bit more realistic and realizes that charters are here to stay and have taken a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. Toward that end, AFT claims to have unionized 150 charters.
While we have no verification of that number, it is probably close to accurate. However, according to the Center of Education Reform, the country’s premiere advocate for charter schools, there are 5,453 charter schools nationwide. So even if AFT’s number is correct and we include 20 more charter schools that are unionized but not affiliated with AFT, that means just 3% of all charters are unionized. (The number, of course, is always changing… in both directions. In 2009-2010, three KIPP Charter Schools in New York unionized and then very quickly decertified the union because the teachers felt that as union members they would have to compromise their very high standards.) It is doubtful that the 3% number will grow appreciably since the reason that many teachers decide to work in a charter is to escape the unions’ odious rules that poison the educational well.
What is it about teachers’ unions that is so toxic?
• Unions are not interested in children getting a good education – they insist on tenure (aka a job for life) and seniority for all teachers – good and bad — and are vehemently against any kind of pay for performance. These are anti-child staples in almost every union contract.
• Unions promote adversarial relationships between administrators and teachers.
• Unions tell teachers directly and indirectly that they are disrespected – a “teachers vs. the world” mentality and that the union is there to save them, to fight for them, etc. They began telling teachers this over 40 years ago and they are still telling teachers the same thing – so just what is it that they have done for teachers?
• Unions tell teachers that they would be making minimum wage if it weren’t for them. But according to Andrew Coulson, director of Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and others, the effect of collective bargaining is very minor compared to general economic conditions.
• So there emerges a “U-bot” class that thinks of the union in deified terms. These are the zealots who give teachers a bad name. These days, now that the public has become more aware of what the unions are really about, non-union teachers are getting more respect.
• Unions can poison relationships between teachers. If a teacher is not in the union in a unionized school, they probably will be ostracized and possibly worse. They may be forced to eat lunch in their rooms alone. They may not drive home with a windshield. Just ask any dissident in a school that is that is full of union true believers.
• Unions call teachers professionals – but they are paid more like assembly line workers in Detroit – with a lockstep pay scale. Professionals get what they deserve to be paid – good doctors make more money than bad doctors, good lawyers command greater fees than middle of the roaders.
• Jaime Escalante, probably the greatest teacher of our time, was revolted by the union mentality. That he was a phenomenal teacher paled in comparison to the fact that he could not abide by all the UTLA rules he had to live with and the union proceeded to hound him out of Los Angeles.
With all this in mind, I agree with the optimistic note on which Mr. Gunn’s ends his op-ed. He has some good advice for charter school officials, parents and consumers.
Charter school officials can help combat this threat by treating their teachers with respect and listening to their suggestions. Happy employees generally remain non-union employees.
Parents also can help by refusing to send their children to charter schools with union teachers. They should know they won’t get the service they expect when the AFT and NEA are in the house.
Union charter schools won’t last long if consumers soundly reject them. And charter school teachers will be less likely to join unions if they know such a move could lead to the extinction of their employers.
In other words, the bottom line is that a charter school needs a union about as much as a salad needs hemlock.
About the author: Larry Sand 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.