Even among the oft-intransigent locals that make up the American Federation of Teachers, United Teachers Los Angeles is renowned for its bellicose opposition to any kind of school reform. Notorious for its successful battles against efforts by former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and one of his successors, Antonio Villaraigosa, to overhaul the infamously laggard Los Angeles Unified School District, United Teachers behaved in typical form last August when the nation’s second-largest school district finally gave in to school reformers and agreed to a plan that included spinning off 12 of its worst-performing schools into private hands and creating 24 new schools to be run by a hodgepodge of operators. Besides filing a lawsuit against the district to prevent the reform measure from being implemented without “majority teacher approval,” the union staged a series of protests against the plan. Declared A.J. Duffy, United Teachers’ square-jawed president: “We will stand up against violations of the law and our members’ rights.”
But this past month, when L.A. Unified announced the organizations that would run the schools, United Teachers pulled off a major surprise. Thanks to electioneering that would have done legendary Chicago mayor Richard Daley père proud — and the political pressure United Teachers placed on the elected school board — the union gained operational control of 22 of the schools either being spun off or newly created by the district. Most of the very charter school operators that United Teachers opposed — including Green Dot Public Schools, which had bested L.A. Unified two years ago for control of one of the district’s high schools — were shut out altogether. Pronounced Jed Wallace, the CEO of the California Charter Schools Association: “the supporters of the status quo and adult concerns trump[ed] making good decisions on the behalf of children.”
United Teachers now bears the burden of actually running schools instead of the indirect control it has exercised for decades through an array of state laws, collective bargaining agreements, campaign donations and the rallies of rank-and-file teachers. It isn’t the only one. These days, the AFT and the National Education Association find themselves becoming school operators — and even embracing the charter school movement in their rather schizophrenic way — in order 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. Whether or not the unions can pull it off is an open question.
This is an area where the AFT has been a clear pioneer. Its Boston local already operates something called a pilot school — sort of a charter but without full independence from the school district — while the union’s New York local (America’s largest) operates two charter schools, including one in partnership with Green Dot, the legendary charter school operator best known for improving academic achievement among poor children of Latino immigrants. The NEA, with its base largely in the Midwest and South — which haven’t been hotbeds of school reform — has been slower to take up the concept. Its Denver local started the Math and Science Leadership Academy, an elementary school in which teachers actually run operations and evaluate each other’s performance.
There is the possibility of even more schools landing in teachers’ union control. As L.A. Unified continues to hand off more of its existing schools, United Teachers — likely with the encouragement of AFT President Randi Weingarten — will push for control of most of these campuses. Two programs run by the unions to encourage their versions of school innovations also mean the likelihood of directly operating more schools. Even further impetus for further school-running efforts may come courtesy of President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top reform initiative, which has been narrowed to 15 states (at least for now). Its emphasis on increasing the number of charter schools all but assures that the NEA’s and AFT’s longstanding efforts to stifle their growth (and banish them altogether) will be an abject failure. If the unions can’t beat them, they’ll just as well join them.
Certainly preserving the status quo is at the heart of these moves. Emerging research, the development of value-added assessment (which allows for the measurement of student test-score growth and, in turn, teacher performance over time) and the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and other accountability measures, have weakened support for the traditional teachers compensation system the NEA and AFT so zealously defend. The high cost of teacher pensions and retirement benefits — which has helped to make the profession among the best-paid in the public sector — is also forcing states and school districts to breach the deals they have made with teachers unions. Then there is the success and popularity of the nation’s 4,912 charter schools, which now educate five percent of the country’s students. The fact that almost all of them operate without being subjected to union contracts and work rules has not gone unnoticed; the AFT and NEA hope to expand their paltry 5.7 percent of charter school teaching staffs.
By operating their own schools, the NEA and AFT hope to show that the academic problems within American public education — and especially among such woeful urban districts as Detroit and L.A. — lie not with collective bargaining agreements, but with bureaucracies that fail to embrace the best practices advocated by unions and other defenders of traditional public education. It isn’t exactly a new argument. The development of charter schools, for example, can be partly credited to legendary AFT president Albert Shanker, who advocated them as both a defense against vouchers and as laboratories for improving the quality of teaching and curricula.
But can teachers unions actually prove their point without eventually abandoning their defense of traditional teacher compensation and union contracts? This is already proving difficult. Two years ago, the chief administrator of one of the AFT New York local’s charters walked away from the job after teachers and parents complained that she had shown “negligence, irresponsibility, untrustworthy accountability, and bias.” The charter it operates with Green Dot is governed by a contract that greatly digresses from the kinds of contracts it arranges with traditional districts. It specifies only that teachers will work a full workday (unlike traditional contracts, which specify the content of a day down to the minute); the teachers also don’t have seniority rights or even procedures for gaining tenure. The teachers aren’t even represented by the AFT; they are part of a separate union that represents all of Green Dot’s teachers.
Before all this is over, the NEA and AFT may echo the same complaints about teacher contracts that school reformers and superintendents have been making for the past three decades. Now that would be ironic, don’t you think?