Teaching Profession

Reporter’s Notebook

July 12, 2000 7 min read
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AFT Backs Away From Charter School Support

The American Federation of Teachers has changed its mind about charter schools.

Once a supporter of the idea that such schools could incubate new ideas, the union has soured on the movement to a considerable degree. A resolution approved unanimously here last week at the AFT’s biennial convention lists detailed criteria that the union believes state lawmakers should follow in passing legislation to establish the publicly financed but largely independent schools.

Such schools, the AFT now stipulates, should be tuition-free, not operated for profit, and must not discriminate against special-needs students or those with limited proficiency in English; must be required to meet or exceed the same academic standards that apply to regular public schools; must meet the same assessment requirements as other public schools; must make information available to parents and the public; must be required to hire fully certified teachers; must allow their employees to form unions and be represented by the organization of their choice; and must not siphon money away from existing public schools.

Currently, the union says, no state meets all those criteria.

The resolution, sponsored by the union’s executive council, was debated for more than a year, said Tom Mooney, a union vice president and the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. In Ohio, Mr. Mooney asserted, “we’ve seen a lot more scandals than successes” in charter schools.

On the state’s new 4th and 6th grade proficiency tests, charter students passed in the single digits, he said, while 30 percent to 40 percent of public school students passed,

The union says it is particularly concerned that so many charter schools are now run by for-profit companies. Instead of being an antidote to “one-size-fits-all” public schools, it says, charter schools generally use a standardized curricula and haven’t produced significant learning gains for students.

Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, argued that the resolution would help reframe the debate over charter schools to recall their original promise as places where parents and teachers would use their autonomy to innovate. Instead, he maintained, some charter schools have become “cut-rate schools with false promises and lower standards.”

“They should not be a cover for student segregation, exploitation, and privatization,” Mr. Higuchi said. Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group that promotes charter schools, said the AFT’s position formalizes unions’ long- standing opposition to them. “This is not an issue having to do with education,” she said. “They just don’t want the competition.”

Ms. Allen predicted that the opposition will “come back to bite them,” as union leaders are faced with division among their members between those who support and those who oppose charter schools.

In the past two years, the AFT has grown by 99,355 members to a total of more than 1 million—"our most phenomenal growth ever,” according to President Sandra Feldman. To keep gaining new members, the union will pursue an aggressive new strategy outlined in a report approved by delegates to its July 2-6 gathering.

A year and a half in the making, the report outlines four major goals for a reinvigorated pursuit of new members and political clout: expanding efforts to organize new members and signing up nonmembers within existing bargaining units; beefing up the union’s political- action efforts; improving the public institutions that employ union members; and increasing the working relationship among the union’s national, state, and local affiliates.

The plan follows a 1992 effort to restructure the AFT to give its diverse members a voice in its operations. At that time, the union created program and policy councils for each of its five distinct constituencies—K-12 teachers, paraprofessionals, higher education employees, nurses and other health-care professionals, and state and local government workers.

To underscore its commitment to organizing—the backbone activity that built the AFT and other trade unions—the AFT will create a committee of its executive council that will make recommendations on unionwide organizing policy. In the future, the union might decide to “organize beyond the AFT’s traditional jurisdictions,” the report says. In one such move, the union made headlines last year when it signed up 3,300 self-employed psychologists, Ms. Feldman noted in her keynote speech.

Just by signing up all the employees for whom the union bargains, but who have chosen not to become dues-paying members, the AFT could grow by 160,000 new members.

To increase its influence in politics, the union plans to “substantially increase” contributions to the Committee on Political Education, or COPE, its political action committee. Officials at the state and local level also plan to step up their contacts with legislators.

Along with sheer numbers and dollars to contribute to lawmakers, the union wants to strengthen its advocacy for improving the quality of the institutions where its members work.

To accomplish those goals, the AFT wants to provide more effective assistance to its affiliates, partly by drafting written contracts that will spell out what assistance it will provide. The union also pledges to continue its work to strengthen its state federations, which typically have taken a back seat to its strong local affiliates.

Herb Magidson, an AFT vice president who led the planning effort, said union leaders focused on identifying a “commonality of interests” that could unite various workers under the AFT’s umbrella. The new organizing effort may well lead the union further into organizing employees in fields other than education, he said, although the nation still has some 1.5 million school paraprofessionals who are without union representation.

“This is still predominantly an education organization,” Mr. Magidson said. However, “we think the philosophy is right to reach out to others with similar goals and needs.”

Teachers’ salaries are not competitive enough to stem the growing shortage of teachers and lag far behind those offered to other white-collar professionals, according to the AFT’s 1998-99 salary survey.

The average beginning teacher’s salary was $26,639, the survey found, while teachers who had worked an average 16.2 years earned $40,574.

In contrast, the average salary offered to new college graduates last year was $37,194. Those in technical fields earned more, with engineering graduates being offered an average salary of $44,362. The gap between the salaries of experienced teachers and professionals in other fields widens even further, the survey found, with engineers earning average salaries of $68,294, for example.

“This is clearly a national emergency,” Ms. Feldman said at a press conference here. She argued that the booming economy, combined with the need for qualified teachers, augurs well for policymakers to raise salaries into competitive ranges.

The union has a task force, headed by Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, that is examining alternative compensation systems for teachers.

Even with new incentives and rewards, Ms. Feldman said, the base salary for all teachers must be raised to attract people into the field.

To help make its case, the union is stepping up efforts to lobby state policymakers and is arguing that states have a particular responsibility to increase salaries in property-poor districts that can’t raise enough funds to pay teachers competitive salaries. Ms. Feldman warned that today’s shortage is “much more dangerous” than those in the past because teaching has lost its traditional claim on a huge share of the female workforce.

Vice President Al Gore, whom the AFT has endorsed for president, received an enthusiastic reception here. The presumptive Democratic nominee, who concentrated the bulk of his remarks on his proposals for reforming the health-care and prescription-drug industries, got a standing ovation when he pledged to “never support private school vouchers.” He also called for putting a qualified teacher in every classroom, recruiting 1 million new teachers, raising standards for teaching and boosting salaries, and providing teachers with the training and support they need to do their best.

Mr. Gore called the November election, in which he is expected to face Texas Gov. George W. Bush, “a high-stakes fork in the road.”

“The next president may appoint as many as three or four Supreme Court justices,” he said. “And one of the great issues that hangs in the balance is the constitutionality of vouchers. And that’s another reason we need to win this fight.”

—Ann Bradley

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook


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