Schools and Politics: Charters Schools and Teachers’ Unions

Summary: Last week, as part of a discussion of charter schools, I cited the Harlem’s Children Zone as an umbrella project that has changed the “context” of associated schools, and thereby the expectations of students and the realities from which they undertake their education. The context of schools includes their relationship to the unions that represent teachers, as well as other school workers. This post explores some of the issues around such unions.

Part of the changed context, I suspect, of the Harlem Children’s Zone is the sense of mission in each worker that can be stunted over time in standard public schools, and which must be a key variable in the exit of 46% of teachers in their first five years of teaching. Where a charter teacher may feel empowered, too often the standard public school teacher finds initiative blunted.

In the discussion of changing the context in which learning occurs, unionism has become a battleground. Among the rules suspended by school boards in many charter schools are those that govern the relationship between teachers and the schools they serve. Certainly these rules in the most egregious example protect incompetent teachers. No school will go anywhere on the backs of the least productive teachers, however that is measured or defined.

Caution is nonetheless mandated by stories of some charter school teachers who have moved to unionize where they are not already collectivized. By these tales, in the zeal to change kids’ lives charter teachers run the same risks that face their public school colleagues.

Such is the demand on their time by the extensive needs of their kids that their energies and unremunerated time drain their private lives, and verges them on the burnout familiar to their regular public school counter parts. Unions are sought as shelter from the unremitting demand of both the job and the administrator. Regular public school or charter, the danger to all is that one shoulders too much responsibility and commits increasing amounts of time and energy to work that will simply overwhelm any one who does not observe appropriate boundaries.

Those steeped in union history will recognize this tale as a creation story for unions in general.

It is no accident that many successful charter schools staff themselves at a richer mixture of adult to student, and is tacit recognition that any one adult can only give so much, and more human power is needed, more than the public purse will currently allow across the broad sweep of American public schools.

There are those in the business and corporate community who take up legitimate criticisms of union intransigence and broaden them to include an attack on unions as the lynchpin of school failure.

On one hand, the thinking strikes me as too simplistic in a very complex topic, and on the other as self-serving. Since unions protect salaries and normally try to enlarge upon them, then the breaking of unions means the cost of government recedes, and the pressure on wealthy individuals and corporations to fund government via taxes diminishes. Not to mention that teachers’ unions are potent political contributors. The attack begins in substance, but is fueled by greed and the partisan ambition to weaken financial and electoral support of a political enemy.

This cross wind is destructive in another way. Generally there is an agreement from many points on the political compass that teachers need to be paid more, and their status upgraded professionally, in order to bring elite university graduates into teaching. It strikes me as contradictory that some would do so by breaking unions, implicitly attacking the fiscal protection and the collective channel of salary enhancement that might attract more of these elite.

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Last week in the post “Charter Schools – The Emerging Lessons”, I noted that a prime lesson of success in some charter schools is that an enhanced adult to student ratio, funded by foundation dollars, and the set of relationships thereby made more feasible, has been key to heightened test scores, graduation rates, and consequent turnarounds in individual student lives.

As I reflected on my earlier argument, I realized that low-income public schools across the country have had access to Title I supplemental funds for years, which in theory could have served much as the foundation money has served charter schools. This realization complicates my argument, converting the question into the subject of a doctoral dissertation. Clearly some Title I schools have continued to fail, or do they fail less than they would have without the Title I monies? Is the Title I money so much less per capita than the foundation grants to charter schools as to be relatively inconsequential, or has the critical re-imagining of some charter operations, what I have called the changes in context, somehow made more vibrant the infusions of cash? More basically, am I correct that adult to student ratios are superior in successful charter schools, by comparison with public schools?

Hopefully, a look more closely in this space over the next months at specific programs will help get at these questions, since I will likely leave the doctoral dissertation to others.

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