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Accidentally, Like a Charter: Unions, Good Teaching & School Governance

My fellow Teacher magazine blogger, Anthony Cody, is hosting a conversation with an educational philanthropist at his home base, Living in Dialogue. Subject: charter schools. The philanthropist has an axe to grind--teacher unions are obstructing the smooth launch of another charter in Harlem by resisting the charter's bid to utilize available space in a public school.

The philanthropist (don't you wish all public schools had their own philanthropists?) sings a familiar tune: teacher unions have enormous amounts of power, controlling public facilities and institutions; unionized teachers care only about their working conditions and benefits; non-unionized teachers get better results. Tenure is folly, the union makes it too hard to get rid of bad teachers--"if high-performing charter schools are allowed to get enough market share to truly challenge the status quo, they...force the public schools to compete."

Lots of standard charter talking points, including a reference to Caroline (I love Charters) Hoxby's skewed study showing that taking kids out of public schools in NYC and putting them in boutique charters means that they generally do better.

Here's my first thought: Mr. Philanthropist, you're muddling your innate distrust of low-rent organized labor types with your desire to do good for darling little children in plaid jumpers. There are plenty of reasons that public schools in urban wastelands are often terrible--but unionized teachers are not the cause of academic failure in these schools. Educators are part of a dysfunctional system, true--but the fact that they're unionized is incidental. There are also truly terrible schools in states where the teachers' union is toothless and only a small percentage of teachers belong to the association. So please save your pique for battle-worthy issues, and consider some of these thoughts:

• Hiring lots of new teachers (as charters usually do) is cheaper. You get energy, idealism, new ideas and not much expertise. While there are weak veteran unionized teachers, there are also excellent, dynamic, highly skilled unionized teachers--who can also serve as mentors and leaders. But they have become accustomed to a living wage. We all know that there's only so much money. So the charter argument is often entangled with another argument--that of paying teachers fairly.

• Creating a revolving merry-go-round of bright young "adventure teachers" making first-year salaries, then burning them out in exciting new ventures that involve 60-hour workweeks is extremely short-term thinking. Nations that have significantly raised student achievement plan long-term, building human capital, collaboration and expertise in schools. It's worth it to pay effective teachers well. And it's worth it to capitalize on their ideas and skills. It's what they do in well-run businesses.

• The key question about charters is always "compared to what?" In places where the public schools are, in fact, terrible, charters may provide a better alternative, but improved achievement data isn't the result of right-to-work teachers. It springs from a host of factors, including some you mention--longer hours, consistent curriculum, ballet lessons. In places where public schools are strong, charters look different--and often generate lackluster test numbers. It's impossible (and foolish) to attribute school success to a particular governance model.

• In many states, charters get exactly what surrounding public schools get in per-pupil funding. Some of them have to find funding for facilities, but in major urban areas, charters are the darlings of high-rolling, "community minded" investors and private/corporate funding bring their budgets up to (and often over) snuff. Combined with lower salary costs, charters often achieve something public schools would love: a lean operating budget supplemented by a willing cadre of fund-raisers. The truth? It costs money to build good schools and programs. You can't accuse traditional schools of squandering resources, then whine when you get the same basic amount--plus significantly more commitment from parents who have to make the effort to put their kids into your school.

• Unions do more than protect slackers' jobs. Dedicated, effective teachers don't want to work with lousy colleagues. But they do want--and need--a decision-making voice, as the experts on the work of teaching. Good schools don't depend on governance model--it's about getting the right teachers on the bus, and paying attention to their know-how.

Thanks to Warren Zevon for the blog title. Rest in peace.

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