Smarter charters

by Maisie McAdoo

The rapid growth of charter schools, in New York and around the country, has often put union supporters’ teeth on edge. This idea for an experimental public school model led by unionized teachers and working closely with district schools — originally the brainchild of UFT co-founder Albert Shanker — has morphed into an anti-union movement by some charter advocates in New York, who have taken hedge fund millions to promote their schools at the expense of the public school system. This week, in fact, a pro-charter group, Families for Excellent Schools, will spend a big chunk of that donated dough, $479,000 to be precise, on an advertising campaign designed to denigrate district public schools.

Authors Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter of The Century Foundation have stepped into this ugly fight with admirable even-handedness. In an op-ed in the Daily News on Sept. 28, they criticized the hostile approach of some charter advocates and called for charter leaders to stop “union busting” in their schools and instead move to forge collaboration between charters and regular public schools.

Charter school chains should call off their dogs, the authors suggest.

In their new book on which the op-ed was based, “A Smarter Charter, Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education”, they explain that charters enroll a small minority of students, and their quality is uneven—some are great, some are poor, most are somewhere in between. Charters should not be pitted against district schools because in some important ways the two types of schools do not educate the same students. But they can and should test out new practices and share them with the district schools, the essence of their mission.

Teachers in today’s charters lack representation and voice, the authors say. That must be addressed if charters are to improve and play the role they were originally designed for — to test out educational innovations that could be used in other schools. In the end, it is charter teachers, not the Walton Foundation or hedge funders, who will drive and implement innovation within their schools. And by the same token it is district teachers who must test, modify, reject or accept the new ideas that charter teachers pilot.

The teachers need the space to work this process out, and so using charters as a wedge against unions is completely the wrong strategy. Kahlenberg and Potter say. They examined research on teacher unionism and find that unions may be a tool for improving student achievement or they may be neutral, but there is no evidence to argue that unions undercut achievement.

Is it too late?

A kinder and gentler — and more constructive — charter sector may be pie in the sky. But it may not be. The authors find several examples of collaborative, unionized charters, even in the city, where working conditions are good and student achievement is high. They suggest ways to increase teacher voice in charters, build collaboration across charter and district schools, and integrate and increase diversity in charters. Their suggestions come from the experiences of teachers they interviewed.

So yes, it makes eminent sense to call for smarter charters. Some are already smart, in fact, and they are not devoting their time to attacking other schools. The ones that are waging the current anti-union crusade could find themselves plagued by turnover and ill will in the end, and going nowhere.

This originally appeared on the Edwize blog on October 2, 2014, visit the blog for the original post.