Teaching Profession

NEA’s New Vision for Charters Looks a Lot Like Traditional Public Schools

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 04, 2017 3 min read
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By Stephen Sawchuk

The nation’s largest teachers’ union endorsed a much tougher stance on charter schools, opposing “as a failed and damaging experiment” charters run by for-profit or nonprofit organizations.

Under its new policy, the National Education Association will accept only charters that look a lot more like traditional public schools.

The policy statement, approved by delegates to the union’s annual convention July 4, allows the NEA to support only those charters that are authorized by school districts and are subject to the same open-records laws, safety rules, and accountability measures as other schools. It would effectively rule out any charters run by private entities, including those operated by major networks of charters, such as KIPP, Achievement First, or Uncommon Schools.

Via a significant amendment added during floor debate, the union now expects any charter authorized by a district with a teachers’ contract to hire teachers who are also covered by a bargained contract (but not necessarily the same one).

And the NEA supports a moratorium on the authorization of any charters that don’t meet these criteria.

The policy statement, however, does permit the union to support affiliates who decide to organize charters, regardless of how they’re authorized or managed. It supercedes all existing NEA policy and marks a turning point in the union’s difficult relationship with the charter school movement.

“This policy draws a clear line between charters that serve to improve public education and those that do not,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement shortly after the statement passed.

Charter School Context

The NEA has gone back and forth on charters over the years. Though always wary of the concept, in 1996 the union began to set up its own charter schools in an attempt to learn whether they could spur innovation. But its early engagement in the concept waned as big philanthropies promoted the independently operated, typically nonunion charters, and as they have boomed in number.

There were about 6,700 charter schools in 2014-15 serving about 2.7 million students—more than 5 percent of all public school students, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. (In 2000-2001, by comparison, there were fewer than 2,000 such schools, and they served fewer than half a million students.)

NEA’s new policy depicts the growth in charters as the product of a privatization agenda. Such schools are often located in communities already struggling to meet students’ needs, it adds, and serve to further segregate students and drain funds from traditional public schools.

The new resolution would also seem to isolate the union from some of its allies. Centrist Democrats have been among the strongest proponents of charter schools, some via advocacy organizations. Hillary Clinton, whom the union endorsed, supported the schools when she addressed the union last year.

But pro-charter Democrats have struggled to balance their support of charters with their opposition to other elements of the Trump administration’s K-12 policy push, such as school voucher programs. And the resurgence of the far left wing of the Democratic party, as evidenced by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ surprising popularity in 2016, has created more mainstream political space for charter critics; so has the call for a moratorium on charters by the NAACP.

Too Similar?

Some charter officials said they had difficulty determining just what would be acceptable to the union under the new policy statement.

“The NEA seems to be saying that they are not against charter schools as long as they operate just like district schools,” right down to union contracts and school board politics, said Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “What’s the point?”

He also said the statement missed some of the nuance in the sector. Some charters are far more transparent than others due to state and local rules, he noted, while “virtual” or online charters schools have consistently produced abysmal results for students.

“So there is work to be done, but that won’t happen by making charter schools run exactly like district schools,” he said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.