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If charters and unions collaborate, districts could get left out.

May 2009

Like what you're reading here? Then visit This Week in Education, Alexander Russo's blog.

Districts and unions have been fighting against charter schools since almost the moment they became a reality. It makes a lot of sense: Districts don’t want to lose money, kids, and prestige to charter schools that are often presented as a direct refutation of all that districts are trying to do. Unions don’t want to lose members, dues, and market share to a school reform model that, by and large, is non-union.Of course, there are substantive reasons, too. Charter schools aren’t always better than their conventional counterparts. They’re “not magic,” as writer Paul Tough so aptly noted in the New York Times Magazine last year. That’s why, nearly 20 years in, there are fewer than 4,500 charter schools nationwide—not even one for every three districts.But a change might be coming to the stalemate between districts, unions, and charter-school types, and how districts will fare depends on how they react.

Our pro-charter President Obama, in a speech in March, called on states “to reform their charter rules, and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools, wherever such caps are in place.”

Obama also has in Arne Duncan a pro-charter Secretary of Education, who had a largely positive experience with charter education under Chicago’s tightly controlled charter authorization scheme. Duncan makes the case that charters often bring innovations and expectations that traditional schools sometimes lack. And he has the stimulus resources to promote nontraditional forms of education. “Districts like New York are remaking public education in America with bold and innovative new learning models, higher standards, and teacher quality initiatives,” he said.

The real game-changer would be if teachers’ unions found ways to work with charters, leaving districts fighting alone for traditional schools.

Don’t laugh—in a few small instances, it’s already happening. Charters and unions can apparently work together. (At least, as long as there is a highly simplified “thin” contract that doesn’t provide tenure or strictly limit teachers’ workloads.)

The most obvious example is in Los Angeles, where teachers at 17 Green Dot charter schools are all part of the California Teachers Association. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten even sponsored a Green Dot charter in New York City. The Accelerated School in Los Angeles recently voted to join the United Teachers of Los Angeles. And teachers at a kipp school in Brooklyn recently voted to join the United Federation of Teachers. Next year, a union-supported charter is opening in Chicago and teachers at three existing charters there just voted to unionize, too.

It’s a new, uncertain phenomenon. The main teachers’ union in L.A. refused to represent the Green Dot teachers, forcing them to go with the CTA. At least one of the Brooklyn KIPP teachers has withdrawn her union support, raising the possibility that the school will remain non-union.

There are also dangers for charter advocates and union leaders who explore this new relationship. Charters run the risk of losing their hard-won autonomy. Union leaders risk being accused of consorting with the enemy, or, even worse, being accused of “ruining” successful charters.

But it’s districts that face the biggest risk—that of eventually losing the public education franchise. Only by becoming more flexible, more innovative, and more accountable can school districts attract talent and promote improved results. No one wants to reinvent the education wheel by creating a whole new system. But everyone wants the current system to work a lot better than it does. Too few districts are giving schools autonomy in exchange for accountability. You don’t need a charter to innovate.

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