School Choice & Charters

In Midst of Skepticism and Scrutiny, NEA’s 5 Charter Schools Push On

By Lynn Schnaiberg — March 11, 1998 10 min read
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The National Education Association announced its foray into the charter movement nearly two years ago, with much fanfare and a vow that the massive union would put its own stamp on the innovative schools.

With some exceptions, teachers at NEA-sponsored charter schools in states with collective bargaining would receive the same benefits and contract provisions as other public school teachers.

The educators involved in the union’s five charter school proposals have been acutely aware that they are under the microscope. Many in the NEA’s state and local affiliates have traditionally viewed charter schools as unproven experiments and a threat to their hard-won job protections.

Today, three of the five schools are up and running. Two have been delayed. A Georgia school is out; a Connecticut school is in. And despite the backing from the nation’s largest union, many of those involved in the schools say they have had to confront plenty of challenges--some of them internal--to get the schools where they are today.

Take the Colorado Springs, Colo., charter school. In part because of her strong support of the NEA charter school, the local affiliate’s president faced a recall petition last year, though it was ultimately unsuccessful. The 100-student school opened last fall.

Or the proposed charter in East Point, Ga., near Atlanta. Interested teachers at Woodland Middle School could not muster enough support among their colleagues to convert the school to a charter, and the site has been dropped from the project.

In Norwich, Conn., the NEA’s own local and the school district voted against the Integrated Day Charter School, though it eventually won a charter from the state. NEA President Bob Chase was scheduled to visit the 4,000-student K-8 district this week to show his support for the charter and highlight district successes, too.

Public Relations

But it is difficult to make generalizations about the NEA’s initiative. Each school has its own history. Each has grown against the backdrop of its own local and state politics.

Union officials say the charter project is one prong of the NEA’s campaign to reinvent itself, transferring its focus from the old style of labor-management antagonism to a new emphasis on education reform, professionalism, and collaboration.

When they launched their foray into charter schools in 1996, NEA leaders said they would help start the schools in tandem with state and local affiliates, then step back and study them. Union leaders said charter schools held out exciting possibilities for public school reform.

But the project illustrates how awkward change can be for an organization of 2.3 million members. And it is controversial precisely because affiliates have vigorously fought charter school legislation and charter schools in some states, arguing that the laws would leave teachers unprotected and divert taxpayer dollars to unproven experiments.

That opposition has led some charter advocates to label the NEA’s effort a public relations ploy. Others see the publicity aspect as part of a more complicated picture.

“Public relations is part of this, but it’s not only about PR,” said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota and a strong backer of charter schools. “It’s about a powerful organization being encouraged by members and others to rethink their position. My experience is that organizations that want to survive, rather than become extinct or lose influence, rethink their points of view.”

National union representatives say the organization wanted a hand in shaping the burgeoning charter movement.

“Yes, we got a lot of positive media coverage when we announced this,” said Andrea DiLorenzo, a co-director of the initiative with the NEA’s Center for Advancement of Public Education, based in Washington. “But this is not just politically savvy--there are members we know who want to do this.”

Kerry Mazzoni, a California legislator, watched the NEA affiliate in her state oppose the charter school bill that wound up becoming law in 1992. While the Democratic assemblywoman lauds the fact that the San Diego affiliate is launching a charter school under the NEA initiative, in her eyes it does not mean the California Teachers Association has had “a total conversion.”

“I think they’re evolving,” Ms. Mazzoni said, “and I think that’s positive.”

Recruiting Troops

The charter concept challenges many bread-and-butter union issues, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington and a leading proponent of school choice. For example, he said, if teachers in charter schools enjoy more autonomy and double at times as administrators themselves, from whom do they need to be protected?

“Charters threaten the notion that teachers are identical peas in a pod and should work the same and be paid the same,” Mr. Finn said.

When the NEA first spread the word of its project to affiliates in 1995, it aimed its efforts at the states that had charter laws at the time. (“NEA Seeks To Help Start Five Charter Schools,” April 24, 1996.)

The list has grown since then, and 29 states and the District of Columbia now have charter laws on the books.

In selecting the schools to work with--initially in East Point; Colorado Springs; Kailua, Hawaii; Phoenix; and San Diego--the NEA both encouraged local and state affiliates to start charters and responded to teachers who came forward with their own proposals.

The union’s criteria, which mirror many state laws, call for charter schools to be tuition-free and open to all students, nonsectarian, academically and fiscally accountable, with parents and community members helping to govern them. In addition, the schools should receive per-pupil funding equal to that of other public schools and comply with safety, health, nondiscrimination, and equal-opportunity laws.

The NEA guidelines also call for charters to hire certified teachers, grant job conditions equal to those in other schools, and give employees the right to a collective bargaining contract in states that permit it. State charter laws are all over the map on the bargaining issue.

The NEA has provided help with planning, administration, budgeting, staff training, and community relations--areas where other charters have stumbled. The union has pledged to spend at least $1.5 million over five years to support the project; the union’s total budget this year is about $200 million.

In a recent interview, Mr. Chase emphasized the union’s charter schools will share what they learn and should be connected to their larger school communities. Toward that end, the union has hired a team of researchers to document and evaluate the schools. The NEA is also part of a federally financed study on the links between charter and other public schools.

Ask Mr. Chase how he thinks the charter schools will change his organization, and his response is blunt: “I don’t know yet. I think the jury’s out.”

Stumbling Blocks

What’s clear from talking to teachers and local union leaders involved in the project is that many underestimated how difficult and time-consuming starting a charter school can be. The first to open, Hawaii’s Lanikai Charter School on the island of Oahu, was a 360-student, K-6 school that converted to charter status in 1996. But the rest are starting from scratch, which helps explain why two are still not open.

“I think our deadlines were too ambitious, in retrospect. It shows us what novices we are in this,” said Marc W. Knapp, the president of the 8,000-member San Diego Teachers Association.

The Ixcalli Charter School, developed in collaboration with San Diego State University and approved by the San Diego district, at one point was slated to open last fall.

Intended eventually to enroll urban students from prekindergarten through 12th grade, the school seeks to model teaching practices for the rest of the district and serve as a research lab for SDSU. The opening date has been pushed back to next fall, but, depending on how the search for a building goes, it may be later, Mr. Knapp said.

One reason the San Diego affiliate joined the NEA effort was to show that it can mount a successful charter school within its bargaining contract, with some waivers related to personnel evaluation, the school calendar, and academic freedom. “We don’t think our contract is the stumbling block to creating charters,” Mr. Knapp said.

‘Definite Skepticism’

The Arizona Education Association had originally planned a charter school for middle and high school students with the Phoenix Union High School District. But a change last year in the state’s charter law allows districts to grant charters only for grades they serve. That nixed the Phoenix idea, and the 30,000-member union is now working with the Maricopa city schools, Arizona State University, and the Bank of America to open a charter next fall in Maricopa, near Phoenix.

Despite the setbacks, the Arizona affiliate’s effort has given it an insider’s view on charters, earned community-relations points, and built credibility with groups it didn’t have before, said Peggy Story, an AEA program director.

“We’re just having conversations with people on a very different level,” she said. “There’s still definite skepticism about what is it we really hope to get: Is the intent to get inside and make the whole charter movement go away? We may have some members who feel that way, but that’s not our intent.”

The two NEA-sponsored charters that started from scratch and opened last fall have had strikingly different experiences.

Dealing With Dissent

Joan Heffernan, a teacher in the Norwich, Conn., schools since 1971, never really wanted to run a charter school. But when the district quashed the idea of expanding an existing program she helped create, she and two other teachers opted for the charter route. Eventually, they were recruited to join the NEA effort.

But what the national union and Ms. Heffernan didn’t bank on was that their local affiliate and the school board would oppose the idea. The Norwich Teachers League’s vote drew a slim majority of teachers who opposed the charter school, said Barbara Myer, the local’s president.

Some viewed the proposal as elitist. Others feared the school--and its call for changes such as a longer school day--would jeopardize the 319-member union’s contract with the district. “The sense was, we’ve fought too long for what we have,” Ms. Myer said.

Eventually, the state school board granted a charter, enabling the Integrated Day Charter School to open its doors last fall with 175 students in grades K-6 and a hefty waiting list. The faculty has organized its own, eight-member NEA affiliate.

While Ms. Heffernan said relations between the district and the charter school are not hostile, the tensions have taken a toll.

“It’s still tough,” Ms. Heffernan, a mother of two Norwich district graduates, said quietly. “In a couple of years it’ll be a nonissue, but last year was awful.”

In Colorado, the CIVA Charter School--which stands for character, integrity, vision, and the arts--is housed within an existing high school in Colorado Springs District #11. The district has a reputation for supporting charter schools; it already had three before granting what would become the NEA’s.

The local affiliate’s plan to seek a charter was in the works months before the NEA found out about it, said Jan Noble, the president of the 1,500-member affiliate. “I thought NEA would disapprove, frankly,” she said, but instead the national union invited her affiliate to sign on.

The 55-year-old local president said she is convinced the charter, which tries to give families a larger role in the public schools, has helped improve the union’s contract terms and conditions. And it has boosted the affiliate’s image in the community, she added.

“I can’t deny that we did this a little because of PR, because now our reputation is one of professionalism,” she said. “But do I believe the charter is the right thing? Do I believe in reform? Absolutely.”

But the charter came with a price. In addition to facing a recall petition, the union president was criticized for not allowing members to vote on the idea. She’s convinced they would have turned it down.

For lead teacher Linda Page, a veteran with 20 years’ experience in the district, the charter seemed a relatively safe way to experiment. But she is also aware that the pressure is on for the experiment to succeed.

“On some level, I understood the pressure. But it’s a lot scarier than I thought it would be,” Ms. Page said. “On the other hand, it’s been a huge freeing experience to go outside the box and not feel like it’s going to make somebody upset.”

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