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Teacher Unions Fight Charter Schools, Still Want Their Teachers

Chicago has long been home to one of our economy’s most anachronistic middle-men: the labor union. Just last year, the Chicago Teachers Union jumped onboard CPS in an effort to stall reform measures, which merely shut down Chicago schools for 8 days and appeared to end in a technical draw. The fight had allegedly been over teacher pay, performance ratings, school year/day, and job security. In reality, the unions wanted a promise from someone that their members would continue getting paid more for doing the same or less, and by a city (actually, an entire state) that is going bankrupt.

So, it would seem perplexing for an 11-campus charter school operator in Chicago, United Neighborhood Organization, to come forward and allow the American Federation of Teachers (actually CTU, but AFT is the mothership) to contact 400 of their staff and meet with them on school grounds, with the intention of allowing their charter school teachers to unionize.

This makes sense once you realize what’s really going on. Unions have realized that they’re fighting a losing battle against school choice, and it’s time to switch sides. Now they are targeting charter schools in Chicago, San Diego, and Philadelphia for membership.

Currently, Illinois provides charter schools with automatic exemption from collective bargaining, something that can’t be said for a lot of states (Iowa and Virginia actually require it). The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools says that not only are Illinois charter schools exempt from district collective bargaining agreements, state law also specifies that any bargaining unit of charter school employees that is formed must be separate and distinct from any bargaining units formed from employees of a school district in which the charter school is located. This means that whatever agreement the AFT (and eventually the NEA) have with Chicago charter schools will have to be wholly charter oriented, otherwise the state’s charter organization, INCS, could sue if it felt like it.

But even if the AFT and NEA don’t violate Illinois law by traditionally unionizing charter school teachers, the toxicity of even allowing these organizations to operate in and among charter schools is diametric to the movement itself. Teacher unions are frequently the one thing standing in the way of an underperforming district getting a school of choice, and these are the very national unions that fund campaigns of misinformation that poison the outlook of grassroots groups all over the country. If you don’t believe us, just look at what teacher unions have done to New Jersey, and take a look at this chart to see how powerful your state’s teacher union is.

The AFT is a milder version of the NEA, but both have the same goal in mind with the UNO deal. Unions want to cash in on ed reform by piggy-backing on the same school choice movement that they have been fighting relentlessly for years now, and their nationwide campaign for charter teacher membership coincides with their nationwide campaign to keep charter schools from opening.

Despite amicable overtures to charter schools, the unions will still blame charter schools for the ongoing battle. This is apparent from comments made by Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, regarding the “virulent antiunion atmosphere and climate that we’ve seen in charters,” when in reality the lawsuits intended to tie up the chartering process come from unions, not school choicers.

It may not seem like a major problem for a Chicago charter school network  to unionize its teachers. After all, the city has a history of progressive labor policies, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that this would be one of the first charter school markets to encounter a unionization drive by a national teacher organization. But 25% of Chicago’s charter teachers would be unionized if AFT got what they wanted out of UNO, and it’s not just Chicago at stake after that. The damage that these unions could do from within the school choice movement is purely theoretical, but imagine the infighting and divisiveness that would occur as a result of allowing unions to leverage the very membership that is responsible for maintaining our high educational standards.

Some would say that these unions don’t care about teacher quality, only teacher equality. While we here at American School Choice have a higher opinion of career educators than that, nowhere in the Core Values of the NEA will you find a statement holding teachers accountable for student performance. Their manifesto simply references “great public schools” and demands the “status, compensation, and respect due all professionals,” while finally reiterating its commitment to social collectivism. A major criticism levied against the NEA for years has been that they care more for human resource standards than performance standards, so fixing the language in their mission statement might be the first step in working with independently operated charter schools.

The AFT, which is married to the NEA, will have you believe that they have a warm relationship with school choice, but as a union this is a wholly counter-intuitive paradigm. To be fair, it has set up a special arm for charter relations: The Alliance of Charter Teachers & Staff. Indeed, the AFT openly states that it supports charter schools that “embody the core values of public education and a democratic society.” However, when the AFT goes on to list some of those core values, the last one is the “employees’ right to freely choose union representation.” Even the AFT, with its delusive open-armed approach to school choice, still wants to maintain control over the means of production in our factories of education.

Why does a teacher have to be unionized to be effective? For that matter, why does a teacher have to be unionized to make substantially more money? In Houston for the 2007-08 school year, YES Prep paid its teachers only $1,613 less than the District (HISD). In fact, it paid more than the District to its professional support and school administrators. These charter school teachers who made just slightly less than District teachers were not required to pay any union dues, they were allotted much more flexibility in a charter classroom by their administration, and they were not bogged down by the District’s red tape. These are the reasons why teachers come to charter schools: freedom from bureaucratic oppression.

In 2008-09, YES Prep raised teacher salaries again, but not as much as HISD did. Why? There was a Great Recession sweeping the land and privately run organizations were either being bailed out by a disturbingly eager federal government or they were tightening budgets to weather the storm. The next year (2009-10) was the depth of the Recession, and YES Prep had to cut back on its salaries. Yet, HISD’s collective salaries continued going up. Either way you look at it, tax dollars were being spent, but you can thank YES Prep for possessing the acumen to rein in costs.

Teachers don’t need clubs. If charter school teachers want to organize, they need to leave collective bargaining out of it. Mass bargaining significantly decreases the flexibility that makes charter schools what they are: innovative, adept, and efficient centers for learning. Check out the American Association of Educators. They actually have principles related to teacher performance, and a sentence on their website that reads “every child has a right to an uninterrupted education free from strikes or any other work stoppage tactics.”

That is a mission statement that we can all get behind.

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