The head of the New York City teachers’ union told a gathering of charter school leaders meeting here last week that, despite perceptions to the contrary, unions are not the enemy of charter schools.
“The [American Federation of Teachers] does not have a position that all charter schools are bad,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the national union.
“If there’s one thing that I can get through to the people here, … [it’s that] we are in this together in terms of educating all kids,” she told some 400 participants at the Oct. 24-25 conference, hosted by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “Public school choice was never an issue that we didn’t embrace.”
But, Ms. Weingarten said: “Choice in and of itself is not sufficient. … The real issue is the quality of the schools.”
She noted that the UFT opened a new charter school in New York City this fall, and plans to start another next year.
She said some 600 teachers applied for 15 slots at the first one, an elementary campus.
“This is quite a risk for a teachers’ union to take,” she said of its foray into public but largely autonomous schooling. “We wanted to prove the point that teachers are as concerned about the education of our children … as anybody else.”
Also on the panel, Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, located at the University of Washington in Seattle, applauded the efforts of Ms. Weingarten, even while suggesting many unions have a decidedly more hostile attitude toward charters.
“Imagine where we’d be today … if all unions around the country” took the approach of Ms. Weingarten, he said.
Later that day, Alan D. Bersin, California’s secretary of education and a former district superintendent in San Diego, said charter schools “must capture more of the market” for public education.
That’s exactly what’s happening in California. The California Charter Schools Association recently announced that compared with the 2004-05 school year, charter enrollment has climbed by about 18 percent.
“The problem is that it’s still only 3 percent of the action,” Mr. Bersin said, arguing that until charters get better “market penetration,” the nation will not see the acceleration in student achievement that it needs. The goal, he said, ought to be having a fifth to a quarter of public schools operating as charters.
Mr. Bersin said the federal No Child Left Behind Act presents “a huge opportunity for charter expansion.” Under the law, public schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress eventually enter a category in which one option for corrective action is to convert to charter status.
But Mr. Bersin also cautioned that, “to the extent that this is something that is imposed on a neighborhood, a community, it will not have traction.”
A senior U.S. Department of Education official, meanwhile, noted that President Bush’s budget request for fiscal 2006—on which Congress has yet to take final action—calls for $256 million explicitly for charter school programs.
Nina Shokraii Rees, who leads the office of innovation and improvement, highlighted a recent $21 million grant the agency delivered to Louisiana officials after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita “to help them build charters,” some of which are slated to open in January. “We’ve never given a grant of this size as fast as we have [here],” she said.
Still, Ms. Rees said, “It shouldn’t take a hurricane … to go into a community that needs help and expand the number of quality public schools.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week