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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.

Teachers Unions Target Charter Schools in California

The latest chapter in “kill or unionize” sees the unions in organize mode.

As I’ve written before, the teachers unions have a constantly shifting relationship with charter schools. When Mercury is in retrograde, the unions want to limit their growth or legislate the publicly-funded schools of choice out of existence. At other times, organizing them is the preferred strategy. With the coronation of new National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcìa, we see the unions take a conciliatory tone in an attempt to lure charter school teachers into the fold.

In fact, Garcia held a press conference at a unionized charter school in northern California in August. This fits right in with the California Teachers Association’s long-term strategic plan, which includes organizing charters as one of its foci. The only problem with NEA/CTA’s plan is that all their previous organizing attempts have fallen flatter than a flounder. As Mike Antonucci wrote earlier this month, “So go ahead and read about the push to unionize charters from last week, or from last April, or from May 2013, or from April 2013, or from April 2011, or from May 2006, or from November 2000.”

Why have the unions’ attempts to organize charter schools failed?

For starters, charters are either independent efforts or run by charter management organizations which operate a handful of schools. The unions just don’t have the wherewithal to organize one or even a few schools at a time. They have a much easier job in traditional public education where they can exert their influence on entire school districts.

Another reason that more charters aren’t organized is very simply that their teachers don’t want to be in a union. Teachers – frequently young ones – typically flock to charters because they like the autonomy that charters afford and don’t want to be loaded with an endless pile of restrictive work rules that are part and parcel of the typical collective bargaining agreement – a big reason why the de-bureaucratized and de-unionized schools came into being in the first place.

Charter school popularity is perpetually on the rise. Nationally, the number of students enrolled in them reached 2.5 million in 2013-2014, up 12.6 percent from the year before, according to the most recent enrollment estimates from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Ten years ago, charter enrollment was 789,000 – less than a third of what it is now.  As of last year, California alone had 1,130 charters, about 6 percent more than the year before. There was a 10.3 percent rise in charter student enrollment during that time, bringing the state total to 519,000.

The bad news is that there are still not enough. The California Charter School Association informs us that there are 91,000 students on waitlists. Supply just can’t keep up with demand.

At the same time, however, the unions are losing ground with charters. The Center for Education Reform reports that nationwide, the percentage of unionized charter schools has dropped from 12 in 2009 to a paltry 7 in 2012. In CA, there is a 15 percent unionization rate, but that number, from the 2009-2010 school year, is due for an update.

The low unionization rate is good news for students, who are better off when their charter school teachers aren’t organized. Evaluating Boston’s charter schools in 2009, Harvard economist Thomas Kane discovered that “students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit.” In other words, a unionized charter is no different than a unionized traditional public school. Unions may support charters, but unionized charters are stripped of just about everything that makes them different from – and generally better than – traditional public schools.

By the way, Mercury will be in retrograde in a few days, so plan on the unions reverting to kill mode.  They’ll sponsor legislation that will, at best, try to limit charter expansion or, at worst, kill them off entirely. You can bet your astrology chart on it.

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.