The Public Policy

Chartered Into Unions

Unlike the NAACP the AFT is happy to back charter schools -- if it can unionize them.

By 6.16.11

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These days, the American Federation of Teachers must be relieved that it has avoided at least some of the wrath faced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the suit it filed last month against New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to stop the city's longtime practice of allowing the publicly funded, privately operated schools to share space with its traditional counterparts in the city's massive (and often half-empty) buildings.

Black parents and a younger generation of African Americans such as charter school principal-and-CNN contributor Steve Perry are particularly displeased with the nation's oldest civil rights group for continuing its longstanding -- and wrongheaded -- opposition to helping children escape the worst America's public schools have to offer. Meanwhile, the NAACP hasn't helped its own cause with such moves as a press release issued last week declaring that prominent critics -- who include Democrats such as Michelle Rhee and school choice activist Kevin Chavous -- were being funded by "right wing opponents of traditional public schools." It also had to do damage control after the head of its New York branch, Hazel Dukes, told a charter school parent that she and her fellow supporters were doing the "bidding of slave masters"; its national president, Benjamin Todd Jealous has made himself the public face of the NAACP's efforts, attempting to strike a tone of conciliation (and willingness to settle the suit, albeit on its terms and that of the AFT's Big Apple local).

But the suit -- and the bad press coming from it -- is also spoiling the nation's second-largest teachers union's effort to triangulate the nation's school reform movement -- and stave off its loss of influence over America's public education systems -- by embracing some reforms while otherwise preserving the array of degree- and seniority-based pay scales, near-lifetime employment privileges and defined-benefit pensions that have made teaching the best-compensated profession in the public sector. Once again, the union's interests in preserving its status quo -- along with its general opposition to charter schools, the publicly funded-privately operated outfits that are the nation's most-successful forms of school choice -- belie its attempts to play the role of moderate reformers.

Under its cunning and charming president, Randi Weingarten, the AFT has become a player of sorts in the charter school movement. It already operates charter schools in Boston, Denver, and Minneapolis. In the Big Apple, it operates a charter with Green Dot Public Schools, one of the leading players in the charter school movement. In California, the AFT also finagled its way into controlling 22 schools that were both spun off and newly created by the Los Angeles Unified School District as part of its school reform initiative.

At the same time, the AFT is also attempting to co-opt the charter schools by unionizing the ranks of their mostly nonunionized teachers. Along with the larger National Education Association, the AFT has unionized the teaching staffs of 602 charters, or 12 percent of those schools. Last month, the AFT's Massachusetts branch unionized teachers at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in tiny town of Orleans. The union potentially has even more room to grow. Eighteen of the 42 states that allow for charters to exist -- including New York State, home to the AFT's largest local and state affiliate -- require them to allow their teachers to join AFT and NEA locals. The fact that charter schools are no longer new kids on the education block (28 percent of them have been open more than a decade), along with the lower pay for charter school teachers than their traditional district colleagues, also theoretically makes them ripe for unionization.

The AFT's own idiosyncratic history as occasional reformers (amid its legendary role in unionizing the teaching profession) is one driving force behind these efforts. During the 1970s and 1980s, its longtime president, the fiery Albert Shanker, argued for the kind of rigorous curriculum standards that would later form the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act. Driven by his twin goals to improve teaching and stave off the push for vouchers, Shanker also teamed up with education scholar Ray Budde to help foster the charter school movement and its underlying concept of small, independent, bureaucracy-free schools geared toward providing high-quality education to every child.

But, as with so much with the AFT these days, it's also out of necessity. Its locals are located in the nation's most woeful traditional urban school districts, the hotbeds for the most important efforts in school reform. For urban families, big-city mayors, centrist Democrats and young African-Americans more-concerned with improving economic conditions than with union loyalties, charter schools are the preferred alternatives to those dropout factories and failure mills. In New Orleans alone, charter schools account for 61 percent of all students, while four of every ten students in Washington, D.C., and Detroit attend charters. The growth of charters -- and their success in improving student performance -- is particularly threatening to the AFT and the traditional districts it keeps under its thumb. The presence of charters have also begun to exacerbate the AFT's internal split between its declining number of Baby Boomer members -- who want to preserve their privileges -- and younger rank-and-file counterparts, who, like many charter school teachers, embrace the use of standardized testing in evaluating performance and welcome the possible abolition of tenure.

By starting their own charters and unionizing existing ones, the AFT wants to prove that traditional teachers union principles, including seniority and degree-based pay scales, and work rules that allow the average teacher to work just 35 hours during a work week, won't get in the way of high-quality academic instruction and innovation. Weingarten, in particular, thinks that charters could serve as "incubators of good labor practice." Co-opting the charter school movement -- and unionizing its teaching ranks -- would also help the AFT (along with the NEA) put a check on the more-radical reforms being embraced by Republican governors, some of their Democratic counterparts, and President Barack Obama.

But charter school operators, along with the teachers who work in their schools, have proven hostile to the presence of the AFT and for good reason. The union, along with the NEA, has spent most of the past three decades teaming up with suburban districts to unsuccessfully restrict the growth of charters and even put them out of existence. Particularly vexing to the unions is the Obama administration's efforts to expand charters -- especially through the Race to the Top initiative, which is now heading into its third year -- which has helped force states such as New York to either increase or eliminate artificial caps on the growth of charters.

For charter school operators, the presence of the AFT is more threat than welcomed. They fear that union rules and penchant for rendering schools servile to their demands will stifle the innovative teaching, focus on student achievement and camaraderie between teachers and charter operators that has long-typified the movement. And the AFT, along with the NEA, hasn't exactly given them any reason to think otherwise. This year, with reformers winning efforts to abolish or restrict collective bargaining, the AFT and NEA are striking back at all reformers. Last month, the two unions successfully lobbied California's lower house to again restrict the growth of charters. The AFT's Detroit branch is also opposing an effort by the school district to convert 41 of its schools into charters.

The AFT's lawsuit in New York City once again belies the union's triangulation. The claim by the union and the NAACP that allowing charters to share space (including libraries and lunchrooms) with traditional schools deprives equal education to poor black, white and Latino students is belied by both the demographics of the charters (which, like traditional schools, mostly serve those kinds of kids), the fact that the schools serve just three percent of the district's children, and the enthusiastic support for charters by minority parents and Bloomberg, who is also one of the few mayors in the country who actually runs a traditional district. For the AFT, in particular, the push against charters signals to charter school teachers -- already skeptical of the need for unions -- that it talks out of both sides of its mouth.

This hostility, along with the reality of working under union rules that encourage and protect mediocre teachers, has also meant that the few gains the AFT has made in unionizing charters isn't working out. This month, teachers at one AFT-unionized charter, Conservatory Lab in the Brighton section of Boston, are looking to toss the union out three years after voting to join. As the school's temporary AFT local president, Becca Iskric, admits, the union's demand for the school "to do certain things" and be a poster child for unionization hasn't exactly been appealing to the school's teachers.

For the AFT and Weingarten, facts are getting in the way of the spin.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.