Teaching Profession

Unions Turn Cold Shoulder on Charters

By Bess Keller — March 27, 2002 17 min read
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Veteran teacher and one-time union activist Linda J. Page could hardly be prouder of the charter school she helped found in Colorado under the wing of her local teachers’ association. But the start-up and its aftermath have left a bitter taste.

After five years and what she considers enormous success with a student enrollment that has had more than its share of disaffected teenagers, the CIVA Charter High School has come unmoored both from the local union that birthed it and the national union that made it a model.

“Nobody seems to have the time or the inclination to worry” about the loss, Ms. Page said recently. “I’m afraid we’ll just ride off into the sunset and won’t have made any difference in the bigger picture.”

Ms. Page and others fear, moreover, that cutting the Colorado Springs school adrift is symptomatic of union disengagement from the charter school movement, which has added new contours to the face of American education.

Floated early on as an idea by the American Federation of Teachers’ legendary leader Albert Shanker, charter schools seemed to offer parents and teachers opportunities for creating a variety of public schools free from bureaucratic meddling.

But as laws favoring the new-style institutions passed in state after state, starting with Minnesota in 1991, teachers’ unions generally opposed them. They said that the laws, especially the ones adopted in states where Republicans had the upper hand, allowed charters to undercut union contracts, siphon money from existing public schools, and put profit ahead of education. Mr. Shanker and the AFT stayed on record as favoring charter schools, but found very few to like.

By the mid- 1990s, however, many unionists seemed to be mulling over the possibilities of climbing aboard the movement. The National Education Association’s Charter School Initiative, which in 1996 swept up the CIVA project and five other schools that were in the planning stage, was one of the brightest signs of a possible shift in attitude. Four NEA-endorsed schools eventually opened.

Other signs also heartened charter school advocates. The United Teachers of Dade, one of the nation’s largest local teachers’ unions, announced that it was forming a partnership with the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. to open charter schools in overcrowded areas of the Miami-Dade County district.

Now that momentum seems to have stalled. The NEA’s initiative ended after four years, as planned, in 2000, with a guide for educators interested in starting charter schools and a final report whose conclusions the union has never released publicly. No follow-up is in the works.

For its part, the AFT has largely waved away the charter school movement as a “governance change” that doesn’t necessarily contribute to raising standards or student achievement.

Still, some state unions are interested in embracing charter school teachers to keep their memberships from eroding, and some locals have been willing to work with education management ventures, such as Edison, rather than let the businesses find other ways to start the largely independent schools. But the prospect that teachers’ groups will fight for charter schools as a democratizing reform seems to have dimmed. While unions have tended to envision charters as a means for teachers and parents to establish schools more to their liking, many legislators and their business allies have seen them as a way to open public education to the discipline of the marketplace.

The marketplace is a long way from Linda Page’s hopes for the CIVA—for Character, Integrity, Vision, and the Arts school. She threw herself into the start-up because, along with the Colorado Springs Education Association’s then- president, she believed teachers could create a needed school. A staunch supporter of public education, she also wanted to change it for the better.

“Principals and assistant principals could learn something from CIVA about how to run a school more collaboratively, and about site-based management and smaller schools,” Ms. Page said. But despite the school’s description on its letterhead as “a Colorado Springs Education Association charter school in partnership with School District 11,” neither district nor association has shown much interest lately.

The director of the local NEA affiliate, Dan C. Daly, acknowledged that the association’s interest in CIVA is minimal—largely, he says, because the relationship between the school and the district has changed. Under the terms of its renewed charter, the school no longer receives a host of services from the district, and the district no longer employs CIVA’s dozen or so teachers.

As a result, though all the teachers are union members, the CSEA no longer represents them in contract negotiations, said Mr. Daly, who has been on the job with the 1,500-member union for a year. “I think my board of directors would tell you [charter schools] don’t really have an impact on us or us on them,” he said. “We have enough to deal with on our plate.”

Competitive Urge

Across the country in Akron, Ohio, the teachers’ union set different priorities that deeply entangled it with charter schools.

Up until last week, union Vice President Neil Quirk was pushing to start a charter school, though he styles himself as an implacable foe of an innovation he says will be the destruction of public schools.

The school Mr. Quirk proposed would have been chartered by the Akron school board and run by Mr. Quirk’s union, the Akron Education Association. Both the board and the union are on record opposing charter schools, and both are part of a coalition challenging parts of Ohio’s charter school law in court.

But Mr. Quirk was less interested in paradoxes than realities.

One reality is that three years ago, Akron industrialist and charter school magnate David L. Brennan began operating a school of computer-based learning for dropouts and potential dropouts in his hometown. Another is that educational alternatives for students who are having trouble in regular schools are a kind of specialty for Mr. Quirk, who led the way in establishing about a dozen programs of that type around the 32,000-student district.

A third reality, in the union official’s view, is that charter schools are harming the district and ill-serving students. Mr. Quirk believes teachers in his union, which is independent of both the NEA and the AFT, can do a better job.

When children depart regular public schools for charters, taking the state’s per-pupil payment with them, Mr. Quirk said, “you may have lost $500,000 in revenue, but only $150,000 to $160,000 in expenses.” That’s because of the way economies of scale play out and because local charter schools attract students who are cheaper to educate— elementary-level pupils, for instance—leaving the more expensive ones behind, he said.

What’s more, he argues, the education is often inferior. That’s the case with Mr. Brennan’s Akron Life Skills Center, which offers students a less rigorous but similar program to one the district already runs, Mr. Quirk contends. To compete with Life Skills, Mr. Quirk wanted to enlarge and enhance the existing program, aided by the greater regulatory freedom awarded to charter schools.

“We think we will be able to give a quality educational program,” he said earlier this month. And there would have been a surprising bonus for the district because the union intended to return to it the money that wasn’t needed to run the program—maybe even as much as half of the per- pupil payment, Mr. Quirk estimated.

The union leader still favors the plan, which drew support from most of the Akron school board, but last week he bowed to opposition from the district’s treasurer and withdrew it. Now he hopes the school he dreamed of can be opened by the district itself, working with a nonprofit Marion, Ohio, group specializing in online learning.

Just as with the union school, Mr. Quirk wants the proposed district school to “raise the consciousness” of the community. He says that people need to know that the quality of education suffers at the hands of profit-making firms, a view disputed by officials of White Hat Management, which runs the Akron Life Skills Center and about a dozen other charter schools around the state.

Mr. Quirk’s view is shared by Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. The leader of the state AFT affiliate applauds the Akron teachers’ idea and criticizes Ohio’s charter law as warped by “a real bias toward privatization” that makes it almost impossible for the school district itself to compete with White Hat.

Other teacher leaders around the country also say their opposition to charter schools stems from doubts about the quality of the education offered in those schools, especially the estimated 10 percent of the nation’s nearly 2,400 that are run by for-profit managers.

Union officials say they worry, as well, that charter schools will harden lines of social division. Charter schools in poor neighborhoods may have to scrape by on per- pupil payments that in wealthier neighborhoods go further because student needs are less pressing, the leaders contend. And they complain that charter schools, though public, have often been able to escape the accountability measures applied to regular public schools.

Even one of the unions’ toughest critics, Mike Antonucci, who publishes a newsletter on union activities from his Carmichael, Calif., base, concedes that the teachers’ groups have an important role to play as watchdogs. “We can give them some credit in some cases for some things to keep charter schools honest,” he said.

But too often, he and others charge, when unions aim arrows at charter schools for failing to serve the public interest, they are masking their own self- interest.

Accountability is a case in point, according to Eric Premack, the co-director of the Charter School Development Center in Sacramento, Calif. “A lot of the regulatory-process-based accountability in the traditional system has very little to do with protecting the interests of children and much to do with protecting the interest of adults in the system,” he said. “Getting away from that is one of the fundamental tenets of the charter school movement.”

Gains at Risk?

It is no secret that the self-interests of union members and of the unions themselves, at least as they have traditionally been understood, bump up against charter facts of life.

It is partly for that reason that NEA President Bob Chase has carefully linked the “new unionism” that he has preached, with its emphasis on education reform and collaboration rather than old-style labor antagonism, to his organization’s work on charter schools. By the lights of the old unionism, opposition would be the predictable response.

After all, surveys have suggested that as a whole, charter school teachers work for generally lower salaries than regular public school teachers (though often not much lower), take on more work, and forgo job protections. Their willingness to do more for less might help drag down unions’ hard-fought gains in those areas, the thinking goes.

Just as bad from the point of view of many unionists, the existence of charter schools tends to threaten the school district structure within which the unions have won their victories. Charter schools also typically smudge the line between labor and management, a staple of the union worldview.

Finally, and perhaps most to the point, unions, especially as bargaining agents, are not welcome in many charter schools. In others, they don’t seem relevant or at least not a high priority.

“I don’t know if we would have a contract if we hadn’t been endorsed by the NEA,” said Joan E. Heffernan, the director of the Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich, Conn., one of the four schools that belonged to the national union’s Charter School Initiative. The contract with the school is anything but a straitjacket, she hastened to say, with provisions for teachers to eat lunch with pupils and spend extra time on schoolwide retreats.

But the concept of management-labor separation did keep her out of staff meetings for a while, and under the contract, teachers with a grievance would pursue it before the school’s board, three of whose nine members are teachers at the school.

Researchers have estimated that perhaps a quarter of charter school teachers belong to unions, and a smaller number are represented by unions in collective bargaining.

State charter school laws on that score, as in so many other ways, vary considerably. A few prohibit union membership, though most allow it, and a few require that teachers belong to the local union and be covered by the local contract. The last is the arrangement that the national unions have generally favored, but it is an anathema to many who want to give charters a chance.

“The most minor innovation in charter schools, maybe awarding some teachers bonuses for specific actions—if a union is involved, you have to negotiate with them,” Mr. Antonucci, the union critic, said.

Work to Do

More than most, James P. Testerman has mulled over the potential costs of the charter school movement to teachers’ unions. In fact, with Mr. Testerman in the lead, the Pennsylvania State Education Association has attracted attention for grappling with the issue and declaring that the unions must organize the teachers in the charter schools they can’t stop.

“Fix charter schools or make them go away—those are the only approaches we have,” said the former middle school science teacher and current PSEA treasurer. A report endorsed last year by PSEA members said charters were unlikely to vanish in the state, where the number of the new-style schools swelled from six in 1997 to 68 in 2000. The paper went on to lay out a strategy for the union that includes seeking legislation that would protect school districts from losing money because of charter school enrollments, as well as helping local affiliates better compete with charter schools.

Perhaps the most striking recommendation was that the union set the aim of organizing all charter school employees, eventually bringing them under the NEA affiliate’s collective bargaining umbrella.

The report is blunt about why: “The main source of PSEA’s influence is that almost all Pennsylvania teachers are unionized. If we want to maintain our influence, our ability to do ANYTHING, we must make sure that education remains a unionized industry.”

Mr. Antonucci warns that if unions follow through on such a resolution, charter schools run the risk of being hugged to death. But Mr. Testerman says the idea is “natural” because the PSEA exists to serve public school teachers.

So far, only one Keystone State charter school has been unionized—and that by the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, the AFT affiliate. Mr. Testerman said a few other charter schools have approached the PSEA about union representation.

New Directions

Meanwhile, union leaders in Miami are taking a very different tack to preserving membership and shaping school improvement efforts—one that plunges teachers right into the management of charter schools.

The United Teachers of Dade, originally an affiliate of the AFT and now allied with both national unions, has announced a partnership with New York City-based Edison Schools to open some nine charter schools in the area. The move is the culmination of several trends affecting the 20,000-member union and the Miami- Dade County schools, union officials say.

State leaders, led by Gov. Jeb Bush, have been successfully pushing for charter schools, even to the extent of providing funding for construction costs. Charter school teachers have been complaining, though, because their pay is less than that of teachers in regular public schools.

At the same time, students continue to pour into the 375,000- student district, the nation’s fourth largest and one of its most crowded. Finally, the union has a history of experimenting with decentralization efforts, without making much permanent headway, according to union officials.

“In an overcrowded district like Dade, we thought we could help out the district by getting some of that construction and start-up money only available to charter schools,” said Merri Mann, the director of educational and professional issues for the United Teachers of Dade. “It was very practical, and we’d be able to run the schools in ways we’ve been pushing all these years, with good professional development and collegial action between teachers and administrators.”

The opening of the first new school with Edison, the nation’s largest for-profit manager of public schools, has been pushed forward several times. It is now set for as soon as the 2003-04 school year.

The partnership seemed to make sense because the union already had a good relationship with Edison, which runs a district school, and wasn’t prepared to run a school solo, Ms. Mann said.

A second partnership involving charters may also be on the horizon. Interested in having a hand in the conversion of a regular public school to charter status, the Dade County union threw in its lot with Chancellor Academies of Coconut Grove, Fla. Chancellor, headed by former Dade schools Superintendent Octavio J. Visiedo, runs both private and charter schools and recently merged with Beacon Education Management Inc. of Westborough, Mass.

The teachers’ group and the new educational management company narrowly missed their chance in December, when the school board voted down the conversion of a Miami school, where parents and teachers had both voted in favor of the move. The school has appealed the decision to the state board of education. What’s more, the union is building toward running charter schools on its own. With an eye on that prize, UTD officials have not only added new expertise, but have also taken the extraordinary step—for a teachers’ union—of lobbying for lifting the cap on the number of charters allowed in Florida.

“I wish we didn’t have the need for charters schools, that schools would get the autonomy they need, and that every school in the county would be a school of choice with all kinds of schools,” Ms. Mann said. “But we have been pushing and pushing that, and we’ve gotten nowhere except talking.”

The Dade County union’s actions stand in contrast to the stance of its parent groups in Washington, particularly the AFT. But the 1.1 million-member national federation hasn’t stood in the way, Ms. Mann said.

“While the AFT might not have been enthusiastic about this and certainly not about Edison, there’s a lot of flexibility there,” she said. “They don’t put an iron hand on you.”

AFT officials in Washington have little good these days to say about charter schools. Both national unions have endorsed the charter idea within fairly narrow limits, requiring district control over the schools and collective bargaining for the teachers within them. Charter proponents maintain that the limits either stymie start-ups or hamstring the schools from innovation once they get going.

At bottom, said Nancy Van Meter, who heads privatization oversight for the AFT, charter schools are not a good place for the union to invest its energy.

“Our leadership is focused on how do we work with school districts and our members to make sure schools meet the standards and provide the kind of professional development that helps with that,” she said. “We just don’t have the kind of resources it would take to help individual teachers who are trying to start schools.”

In other words, the centralizing movement toward stricter academic standards for all students could trump the decentralizing thrust of charter schools.

At the 2.6 million-member NEA, the cold shoulder is less frigid than at the AFT. Nonetheless, NEA’s new policy on charter schools, adopted at last year’s union convention, does not make major changes from the previous one, though it does evidence greater flexibility.

For example, while sticking to the view that charters should not be granted to for-profit businesses, the policy agrees that grantees should be able to contract with such businesses for services. The policy acknowledges that forcing schools to adhere to all the rules that apply to regular public schools would defeat their purpose.

And it also sets some further guidelines for funding that in many cases would increase the money available to charter schools.

Robert M. McClure, who co-directed the NEA’s Charter School Initiative, acknowledged he was disappointed with the outcome. “The resolution is not in sync with my vision of and hopes for charter schools,” he said. Mr. McClure retired from the NEA last year, and is now a consultant whose practice includes a District of Columbia charter school.

Added the former NEA official: “I also still firmly believe as a longtime teacher that charter schools should be on the radar screen of teacher organizations.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Unions Turn Cold Shoulder on Charters


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