Education Opinion

Why do So Many Oppose Charters when They Are Working?

By Anthony Cody — March 01, 2010 4 min read
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Today I am posting the second part of my colleague’s response to last month’s column “Competition Can’t Beat Collaboration.” In my original post, I wrote:

Charter schools, which offer educators a worthwhile opportunity to innovate, have been touted as forcing public schools to compete for students and tax dollars. Unfortunately, although some are outstanding, they have not yielded the results that were predicted, and recent reports indicate there are huge obstacles that are likely to prevent them from scaling up to meet the promises that are being made for them.

My colleague, an education philanthropist, responds:

I can’t say that I’m an expert on Race to the Top by any means, but I 
do like the fact that it is getting states to compete for the money. 
This “competition” has allowed Governors and state legislators to 
pass laws that would have never been passed, but for the “dangling 
carrot” to which you refer. But, it’s not that these are necessarily 
bad laws, but rather because the teachers’ unions have an extreme 
amount of power to stop anything from passing that they deem a threat 
to their membership. Notice, I did not say a threat to the education 
of kids, but rather to the threat of “their membership.” I’d love to 
think that everything the teachers’ unions do were in alignment with 
the needs of kids, but that’s unfortunately far from the truth. 

Tomorrow night, I will likely be in Harlem, witnessing a space 
hearing for a charter school. This charter school [Harlem Success Academy] has been doing 
fantastically for the kids in Harlem that it serves, with over 95% 
passing the NAEP in English and 100% passing in Math. (Note: kids 
enter by lottery so they are not “creamed” by choosing those with the 
best academics.) But, who has been the loudest voice of whether this 
school should have space in a public school building? Business 
Interests? No. Parents? No. Teachers’ Union: Yes!

The fact that 
this charter school is embarrassing almost every public school in 
Harlem with (big breath) non-unionized teachers means they have a 
target on their backs. The last thing the union wants is more 
schools with non-unionized teachers making them look bad. People 
might start to question tenure and the insane process by which 
principals must take to get rid of a teacher, even in extreme 
situations. I’m sure you read the article about NYC’s Rubber Room, 
where teachers are placed until their cases have been resolved, which 
usually takes years. Do parents want more of these high-performing 
schools, regardless of their wrapper? You bet. In fact, this one 
Charter Management Organization (CMO) had over 3,000 applicants for only 750 spots.

You also note that charter schools were supposed to force public 
schools to compete for students, but they have not yielded the 
results that were predicted. I would agree that they have not 
yielded those results to a large degree. But, this is exactly what 
is happening in Harlem and I’m sure it’s also happening in Houston 
and New Orleans. When high-performing charter schools are allowed to 
get enough market share to truly challenge the status quo, they are 
forcing the public schools to compete.

You may also want to check 
out the study by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford where she analyzed the 
results of students who applied in a NYC charter lottery, but didn’t 
get in and compares them to students who applied, but did get in. 
(This would seem to defeat any suggested selection bias of applicants 
to a charter school since both applied.) The simple answer: the 
students who got into these charters did better. Now, that likely 
has a lot to do with the fact that these charters have a longer 
school day and longer school year. When these kids are so far 
behind, they need more time not just for academics, but for chess, 
art, science and ballet. (In fact, the charter school I mentioned 
earlier has science every day, with incredible experiments and hands-
on learning, starting in Kindergarten!)

You also mention that charters have large obstacles to scaling up. 
First, some charters should close because they stink. Just as some 
public schools should close for the same reason. But, if we have a 
highly successful charter management organization like Aspire, KIPP, 
etc., what are those obstacles to scaling up and why are they there? 
One obstacle is that charters don’t usually get the same per pupil 
costs as their traditional public school counterparts. That seems 
like a fix that should be implemented.

Second, charters don’t often 
get space in public buildings. (NYC is one unusual example to the 
contrary.) Third, many states have charter caps. Now, who do you 
think might advocate for all three of these obstacles? In New York, 
it’s the teachers’ union. Does that benefit kids? No. Does it 
benefit parents? No. Does it protect union jobs? Bingo! So, if 
you wonder why many education reformers are skeptical of 
“collaboration,” it may just be that they’ve seen collaboration in 
the form that benefits union members, but not kids.

Nancy Flanagan at Teacher in a Strange Land has shared her own response to this post on her blog. Please read and comment there as well.

What do you think? Are the unions to blame for obstructing the growth of charters? Are charters offering real competition to public schools, and thus driving improvement?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.