The UFT and charter schools
The UFT is a vital part of a national movement for education reform. Since its early days, the union has advocated for the conditions that are best for student learning and that help teachers to be most effective. This includes a broad range of initiatives, such as smaller class size, adequate funding for schools, school-based health clinics, mentoring for new teachers and professional development for all teachers, to name just a few.
In fact, former UFT President Albert Shanker was one of the first education leaders to champion the concept of charter schools. In a speech in 1988, he envisioned teacher-led laboratories of reform that would experiment with new instructional practices. These practices would then be subjected to rigorous evaluation and, if successful, serve as models for other public schools.
Freeing charter schools from overly bureaucratic regulations was crucial to his model, as was empowering teachers and strengthening their voice in school and curriculum decision-making.
In 2004 the UFT began developing its own union-run K – 5 charter school, which opened in East New York, Brooklyn in 2005. One year later, it was followed by a 6 – 12 campus nearby. In addition to its own charter school, the UFT partners with innovative charter school operator Green Dot to run a second charter school in the Bronx.
Many teachers and staff in unionized charter schools report high levels of job satisfaction, noting that they benefit from the best of both worlds: the protections and rights of a union and the freedom and flexibility of a charter.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the UFT has a growing chapter that currently represents teachers in charter schools throughout the city.
Charter schools can empower teachers
No educational reform effort can succeed without improving instruction in the classroom – which means it must have the support and leadership of teachers.
The UFT believes that teachers aren’t the problem, as they’re sometimes portrayed – teachers are the solution. That is true whether you’re talking about school improvement in district schools with innovative school design or in the charter school movement.
We strongly support charter schools that embody the core values of public education and a democratic society: equal access for all students; high academic standards; accountability to parents and the public; and a curriculum that promotes good citizenship.
Where we differ from some in the charter movement is that we would also like to facilitate a dialogue so that best practices can be shared among both district and charter schools and we hold a firm belief in the right of all workers to freely choose union representation.
Rather than a hindrance, unions help create the kind of secure work environment that encourages teachers to innovate and take risks in their pedagogical approach.
The bottom line: What happens in the classroom matters most
Frontline educators know that there’s no silver bullet for improving student learning. Simply changing a school’s governance structure — for example, from district to charter or from charter to district — does not magically lead to better results. Regardless of the type of school, what happens in the school and in the classroom matters most.
Research shows that all schools have the best chance to succeed when they foster safe and orderly environments conducive to learning; have manageable class sizes; value quality teaching; offer ample and effective professional development; feature a challenging, content-rich curriculum; and use proven, research-based instructional practices.
Schools also succeed when teachers and staff have a strong voice in school operations. Just as there are good and bad district schools, there are good and bad charter schools. Unfortunately, some charter operators stifle input and put profit ahead of students’ needs. Teachers working in poorly managed charter schools are the first to acknowledge this reality.
For decades, the UFT has helped educators expand their influence as school leaders and decision-makers. That commitment extends to charter school teachers and staff, who can also benefit from the same rights and responsibilities.
For a further discussion of the UFT’s position on charter schools read UFT Vice President of Academic High Schools Leo Casey’s testimony before New York City Council Education Committee and his piece in the New York Teacher.