Unions kill vouchers, go after charters

Teachers’ unions have declared war on charter schools, writes Jay P. Greene in the Wall Street Journal. The unions are fighting on two fronts:  While seeking to deny charter funding, they’re also trying to unionize charter teachers.

Studies have shown students who win charter school lotteries do better than those who seek a charter education, lose the lottery to get in and have to attend district-run schools, Greene writes.  A study by Harvard economist Tom Kane also looked at Boston’s district-run, unionized charters, known as “pilot schools.”

. . . students accepted by lottery at independently operated charter schools significantly outperformed students who lost the lottery and returned to district schools. But students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit.

When charter schools unionize, they become identical to traditional public schools in performance. Unions may say they support charter schools, but they only support charters after they have stripped them of everything that makes charters different from district schools.

“Vouchers made the world safe for charters by drawing union fire,” Greene writes. Now that the unions have beaten back vouchers — pressuring congressional Democrats to defund the successful and popular voucher program in Washington, D.C. —  they can unionize, regulate and starve the charter schools.

The American Federation of Teachers is working hard to unionize three Chicago charter schools run by a non-profit, notes This Week in Education.

Marcus Winters writes on KIPP vs. the Teachers’ Unions on City Journal.

About Joanne


  1. Anyone know of any instances of charter schools being started or promoted by teachers’ unions or union members? Or is the predominant belief that the poor performance of so many students is primarily the result of those students life condition.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    Anyone know of any instances of charter schools being started or promoted by teachers’ unions or union members?

    There is (or was) at least one in New York. Google for “union run charter school” to find a number of posts discussing the school.

    -Mark Roulo

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    My district has one. It is district sponsored and employs union teachers. The motivation was to keep the $ in the district. It is modelled after a for-profit drop-out recovery charter. The first year they used online coursework, flexible scheduling and took all comers. In year two they continued the online coursework, cut back to the hours the teachers wanted to teach and started discouraging kids who might be difficult to teach (ie: kids with disabilities).

  4. I think it’s pretty funny.

    It should have been obvious some time ago that charters represented the greater danger to the status quo for the simple reason that charters create a coherent constituency which can’t be said of vouchers.

    The other big threat embodied in charters is that they’re much less of an unknown then vouchers. A charter is, after all, just a public school. OK, they don’t belong to a district but to a parent how much difference does that make? Vouchers are an entirely new phenomenon and thus inherently scarier for both parents and politicians.

    With thousands of charters and millions of charter kids and parents I’d say the cat is out of the bag but obviously the unions and other defenders of the status quo will try to stuff the cat back. Considering how much coverage the ending of the D.C. voucher vote got putting an end to charters may be a bridge too far.

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    I had heard, though I might be completely wrong on this, that many charter school teachers *want* to unionize. If that were true, it wouldn’t surprise me. Teachers at schools like the ones Joanne describes in her book have lousy wages, hours and conditions… well, certainly lousy wages and lousy hours. Most people don’t want to work for long hours and low pay. Even young idealistic teachers turn into older teachers who want to have a house, a family and a life.

  6. Margo/Mom says:

    I think that AFT has been willing to unionize charters, while NEA refuses, preferring to cast them as the enemy. From a union perspective, it’s easier to make headway with a centralized workforce than many small, localized pieces.

  7. So you figure that teachers in circumstances in which there are a large contingent of non-teaching professionals are doing better then teachers in circumstances in which there are hardly any other professionals besides teachers?

  8. Cardinal Fang says:

    Was that comment directed at me? Are there lots of non-teaching professionals at a normal public school, more so than at a charter school? I thought the non-teaching bureaucracy was usually located in offices, not in schools.

  9. Yup. Margo/Mom slipped in a couple of minutes ahead of me.

    Is there a district high school that doesn’t have mobs of non-teaching professionals? Maybe but at this juncture there’s really no doubt as to the superfluouity of the entire central office staff since charters do quite well without a single central office employee.

    Under the assumption that charter schools don’t utilize Pinkerton goons to intimidate union organizers the logical conclusion is that for charter teachers unions don’t hold much attraction.

    And for what one anecdote is worth, on this site sometime back there was a item about, I believe, a New Mexico teacher’s union official complaining because charters were paying so much more then district schools they were hiring away unionized teachers.

  10. Lightly Seasoned says:


    It is better THAN or more THAN. You’re driving me insane. If you’re going to be a supercilious and insulting Byronic figure all the time, at least write well. Than is used in comparisons; then is used for sequence.

  11. Lightly Seasoned says:

    True. Around here, charters seem to be starter jobs; they don’t tend to hold onto staff. Teachers may start out non-certified, but they often pursue it while at the charter, then move on to a public school once they obtain credentials. This is my personal observation — I’d find it interesting to know real figures for turnover.

  12. Dick Eagleson says:

    Perhaps the WSJ reporting staff need to get out of New York more often if they think this is news. The “war” of unions against charters has been raging out here in L.A. for some time. Thus far, the unions are coming out losers. The United Teachers of Los Angeles – the local NEA affiliate – pulled out all the stops to prevent a long-time pesthole high school in the LAUSD, Locke High, from being turned over to Green Dot last year. Despite calling in every chit they had outstanding with the L.A. political establishment, all UTLA could manage was to delay matters a few weeks. In the end, they lost. LAUSD’s enrollment continues to decline as charters attract more students and many of the children of illegal aliens return to Mexico with their folks due to the declining California economy (unemployment statewide is two percentage points higher than the national figures). LAUSD recently confirmed 5,300 layoffs, many of them teachers. Out here, the teacher unions are losing both fights and membership.

    Wages and benefits at most charters out here, by the way, are competitive with LAUSD schools. There may be charters somewhere that offer only “long hours and low pay,” but they don’t operate around here.

  13. The fragile state of your mental health and the shortcomings of my public school education aside, why would more layers of bureaucracy result in a better work environment then fewer? And why have unions had so little success organizing charters? Charters have, after all, been around for quite a few years now.

    The superciliousness and insultingly Byronic quality are a result of traumatic brain injury resulting from years of pounding my head on the impenetrable condescension of proponents of the public education system. Thanks, I’m better now.

    I attribute my recovery to noticing the universality of feet.

    Of clay, that is.

  14. allen, I’m just helping you get your tax money’s worth by imparting a little bit of education. You’re welcome.

  15. While your unrequested offer of assistance probably describes the extent of your skills there’s an actual issue on the table. Care to speculate about the virtually total absence of union representation in charters or would you rather avoid the issue?

  16. I’m not sure there’s much of a war going on, and I think Randi Weingarten’s AFT is a bigger friend to charters than many here suspect. First of all there are several charters run by the UFT. More importantly, they’ve partnered with Green Dot schools, which are ostensibly unionized but prominently proclaim that their teachers have neither tenure nor seniority rights.

    The UFT claims on Edwize that Green Dot teachers have something better than tenure, a “just cause” clause that protects teachers without the waiting period tenure requires. But CA law suggests “just cause” is not remotely comparable to tenure, and a prominent wonk told me privately that the “just cause” clause has never even been tested, let alone saved a teacher position, and that teachers they don’t care for are gently counseled out of their jobs.

    Now if someone can prove me wrong, that’s fine with me. But why shouldn’t those who oppose tenure and unionization be content with the Green Dot model? It’s good for them in that they get what they want, and it’s good for union bosses like Weingarten in that they get to collect dues without actually providing any worthwhile services for those they supposedly represent.

    Sort of a win/win, if you disregard those dues dollars being flushed down the toilet.

  17. Opposition to tenure and unionization springs from the perception that tenure and unionization yield obvious benefits to teachers but much less obvious, if any, benefits to the public. To put it bluntly, the feeling is that we’re being screwed. That perception isn’t mitigated by the resistance of defenders of the public education system, among which are unions, to measures of accountability.

    If Green Dot can manage the trick of providing the functional equivalent of tenure and still put smiles on the faces of parents then whose business is it? Certainly not the business of any unnamed ideologues who are so opposed to tenure as to try to intrude into the operation of a private enterprise that’s doing no public harm and satisfying its customers.

    At the point in time when push inevitably comes to shove and the UFT in order to justify its dues has to try to bargain for tenure without regard to performance we’ll see what Green Dot does. But for the present if Green Dot makes mommies and daddies happy then I say gai gezunterhait.

  18. I’m sure I understand your point of view, Allen. I’m not sure you got my point, though–it’s entirely possible the teacher union, at least Ms. Weingarten’s, does not much oppose charters as long as they can wet their beaks.

    Green Dot doesn’t appear to provide the functional equivalent of tenure, and I’m not at all sure they even pretend to. Only the UFT claims they do–in fact they maintain it’s better for teachers. I think it would benefit people who follow education to know just what the hell this “just cause” thing is and whether or not it’s actually used.

    I’ve asked this question of the UFT bigwigs and sent it to various professional reporters–the UFT won’t answer it and the reporters cannot.

  19. allen, there’s virtually no union presence in my public school building (as in the only members are pretty much the social studies teachers), so I really don’t have much of an opinion on them. Unions really aren’t on my radar screen. I think charters are fine. Many of them are just as crappy as the city schools they’re an alternative for (one local charter was recently de-chartered when an expose revealed the kids played cards all day), but if a few figure it out and serve the kids, what’s the problem? They’re not hurting me any. I love the idea of choice. I think we should have lots of magnets, charters, etc. There’s no reason every kid needs to be educated exactly the same.

    I just don’t see it as a big “competition” issue. In the end, it’s the same number of students and classrooms; they’re just distributed differently.

  20. NYC Educator, of course the union wants to “wet its beak”. Unions have to have income and dues are the big source. More members, more dues. Heck, if Randi Weingarten could figure out how to organize cartoon characters, and extract dues from them, she’d give it the old, college try and grow a thicket of rationalizations to justify the effort.

    I think I did understand you but I skipped a step in replying because it seems unlikely to me that in this age of damned few secrets what the UFT is praising about Green Dot is in fact a sweetheart deal.

    Either the UFT has the functional equivalent of tenure and thus feels no need to bargain for explicit tenure or it’s a sweetheart deal and there’s no tenure, equivalent or contractual, teachers being fired willy-nilly with the union doing its best to try to keep the situation obscured.

    I think that encompasses the possibilities. Any I missed?

    As to being reticent to publicize the details, a lot of teachers, quite naturally, like the idea of being unfireable. All other things being equal, it’s certainly a desirable state of affairs for the employee. But all other things aren’t equal and part of the attraction of charters is that they’re relatively immune to the perception that incompetent teachers are an immutable fact of like as they are in unionized, district schools. One way to handle the tension between the desire of teachers for bullet-proof job security and parental desire for competent teachers is to quietly agree that lousy teachers will have a tough time being hired, an easy time being fired and there won’t be much discussion about the situation.

    Interestingly, at least for me is that the union and Green Dot face the same danger: some other, more radical union coming along and scooping up the membership by making all sorts of promises. For Green Dot the UFT acts as an impediment to, say, an NEA affiliate which might have more onerous demands and the UFT obligingly scratches Green Dot’s back by not insisting on the sorts of impediments to firing that make firing a teacher a huge, expensive hassle virtually anywhere else around the country.

    Ah but you are utterly incorrect about the relative unimportance of choice, Lightly Seasoned. It strikes to the core of what’s wrong with the American public education system.

    If parents aren’t the ones making the choices, and bending the system to their needs, that doesn’t mean choices aren’t being made. Choices are still being made but by people who can’t reasonably claim to have as urgent a desire to see to the education of kids as their parents. From that one misappropriation of authority flow the multiple ills of public education.

  21. Sorry – haven’t read the entire thread – does anyone here know the title of Kane’s study or where it was published?

    I’ll go check Jay Green’s blog, too.


  22. My husband had an interesting talk with a former TFA’er on the subject of unions this week.

    Not sure whether I can post all the notes I took….

    In a nutshell, and I imagine this will come as a surprise to no one here, you need the union because administrators are so often a horror.

  23. Allen,

    I don’t suppose you and I are destined to agree on a whole lot of issues, but it gives me some small hope for civilization that we at least understand one another.

    Still, it pisses me off that I can’t get a straight answer about Green Dot. In fact, the UFT blog Edwize will not even publish my questions about it, let alone answer them.