Who says that big-city teachers’ contracts are obstacles to reform? Certainly not the United Federation of Teachers, and to prove it, the union representing New York City’s public school teachers last week moved ahead with plans to open its own charter schools.
The 100,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers will submit applications to the State University of New York for charters to open an elementary school serving grades K-5 next fall and a secondary school for grades 6-12 in September 2006.
After months of planning and often-contentious internal debate, union leaders said last week that they decided to go forward with the idea to reclaim a vision of charter schooling advanced by Albert Shanker, the late president of both the UFT and the AFT. His concept of schools led by unionized teachers free from “stifling bureaucracy and stifling micromanagement” is at odds with how charter schooling has evolved in the years since, UFT President Randi Weingarten contended last week.
“The idea has been adopted by many people who oppose public schools, who oppose teachers’ unions,” she said.
The UFT initiative has been criticized by some charter advocates as hypocritical, given the push by the parent union for a national moratorium on charter schools and the push by the union’s New York state affiliate to keep charters there capped at 100. But Ms. Weingarten, a member of the board of directors of the state affiliate, said she saw no inconsistency.
Ms. Weingarten took several swipes at the administration of New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein as she discussed the charter proposals at a news conference last week. Suggesting that teachers get little say in classroom instruction in the city, she called it ironic that the union had to turn to the chartering process to take advantage of “bottom-up thinking.”
Keeping the Contract
If approved by the university, the two charter schools would operate under the provisions of the districtwide contract that the UFT negotiates with the 1.1 million-student district, and teachers would be organized as UFT chapters.
“Within the parameters of the contract, there are huge numbers of things that can be done,” said Michelle Bodden, a UFT vice president. The schools would show that district officials are wrong to “demonize” the contract as an obstacle to school improvement, she added.
For example, the schools would limit class sizes to 25, and classrooms in grades K-3 would have two teachers each. That staffing arrangement would be made possible by forgoing some administrative spending, union officials said.
As for facilities, the elementary school would have rent-free space in an underused, district-run middle school, while the site for the secondary school has yet to be identified. Both schools would be located in a disadvantaged community of Brooklyn.
A board of trustees—made up of UFT staff members, school employees, parents, community representatives, and the “school leader”—would govern each school. That leader would not have the title of principal, Ms. Weingarten said, to signal what the union hopes will be a highly collaborative labor-management arrangement.
Asked whether the city’s principals’ union would represent that leader, Ms. Weingarten said that the question had generated “a really interesting conversation” within the UFT. In the end, she said, members decided that it would be the right thing to do.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Teachers’ Union Moves to Open 2 Charter Schools