So I've been working my way through the newly-launched conversation about how teacher unions and charter school fans could become BFFs. (Here are Part 1, Part 2, and a sort of Prelude). After plowing through all that, I'm going to try to articulate what I think we're looking at and how I feel about it.
This is all in reaction to the Ascent of Herr Trump and his Secretary of Education-in-Waiting Betsy DeVos. As many have noted, their arrival creates a bit of a problem for folks who have worked the progressive side of the street for the reformsters. On the one hand, much of the proposed policy, including especially the emphasis on charters, is right in line with the policies of the last sixteen years and fully in keeping with what we would have had under a Clinton Presidency.
Democrats and progressives, however, are not nearly so comfortable when these policies are being championed by an unbalanced cheeto-skinned narcissist and a public-school hating billionaire heiress.So folks like Peter Cunningham have a doubly-difficult double task. Task 1 is to watch and see just how many people will suddenly pull a Gingrich or a Romney or Cruz or-- man, it's a long list-- and suddenly decide that Herr Trump isn't so loathsome after all. Task 2 is to make sure that Democrats and progressives don't suddenly stampede away from the cause of Ed Reform.
The Strategic Choice
But what of ed reform could be salvaged?
Common Core is already on the ropes, an amorphous blob of who-knows-what-they-are-exactly standards. Trumps denunciation of them means that Common Core are now, after years of battering and beat-downs, finally and absolutely underground.
Standardized Testing has also taken too many hits to be a viable Cause any more. It's too profitable to fully abandon, but too hated to be a marquee cause.
Teacher accountability is likewise wobbly, particularly since after all these years, nobody knows how to do it in a reliable or valid manner. But mostly it's a loser here because if one of our goals is to keep the national union leadership working with reformsters, this is definitely not the issue that will do it.
But charter schools? That issue might have a shot. If we can shade some issues, glide past some sharp edges, and make our pitch maybe-- just maybe-- we can get teachers invested in charters and keep them in the Big Reformy Tent.
And reformsters have been laying the groundwork for a bit. For example, this big glossy booklet from Education Reform Now--one of the other arms of DFER-- explaining how charters have always been a totally Democrat progressive civil rights thing. This is NOT some money-grubbing business-oriented conservative GOP thing, nosiree-- charters are 100% progressive Democrat bleeding heart lefty all the way.
How do we explain the fact that somehow Herr Trump and the Divine Ms. DeVos both love 'em? Well, um, see, DeVos really wants vouchers (which is totally GOP) and she wants charters without any accountability while we want to make sure that we only have charters with good solid accountability in place and no frauds or scams or money-grubbing business-only outfits. Why, we think it might even be a good idea to have unionized charters. Does that sound like Trump or the GOP? Not a bit. We are totally different.
The real beauty of this is it gets everyone off the real question of charter schools-- should we have any at all. Making the New Debate about what kind of charters we should have is like when the car salesman starts getting you to decide which color you want and what kind of upholstery and which sound system because no matter what you pick, you've already accepted the idea that you are going to buy that car.
Charter will be happy to argue all day about what kind of charters we'll have because that assumes the sale, assumes that we have all agreed that we want to have charter schools.
So unions and charters, together like coffee and lemon juice. How would that work exactly? The pitch seems to include several parts.
I swear we get this one every time there's a call for a New Conversation. Reformsters talk as if the state of conflict is one of equal culpability, as if both sides own the conflict. This is not true, and it has never been true. There's no question that some folks on the side of public education have at times lashed out angrily and even meanly-- but that did not come out of nowhere.
Public education supporters did not seek reformsters out to start a random argument about whether teachers suck or not or whether public education is failing or not or whether unions are destroying education or not. All of those arguments were launched by reform fans, and while some have occasionally acknowledged that and even called for their own side to back off, all too often it plays out like a guy who mugs you in a dark alley, and then when you start fighting back, yells out, "Hey, why can't we just admit we're both wrong and try to get along."
Apparently folks are just going to repeat "Albert Shanker created charter schools" over and over and over again as a sort of anchor to the listing ship that carries the assertion that charters are totally a progressive Democrat thing.
This technique of repeating something until everyone believes it has had mixed results. It worked for "public schools are failing," but not so much for "teachers wrote the Common Core." Only time will tell if "charter schools are totally a progressive Democrat thing" is going to catch on.
Who Really Needs To Be Sold
As far as benefits for teachers if charters unionized, I don't think there's a problem since it basically boils down to "You could have the same working conditions at a charter that you can have at a decent unionized public school."
Would it be great if charter schools embraced teacher job protections and decent pay and solid support and useful professional development and a mechanism for letting teacher voices be heard? It absolutely would. It would not negate other charter issues like, say, the tendency to suck resources away from all the students in public schools, but it would all be good stuff.
But there's an irony here-- on the whole list of Cool Things That Unions Could Bring To Charters, there isn't a single thing that charters couldn't do on their own without any union involvement at all. There's no mystery about how to implement things like a decent pay scale or job security-- but charter operators don't want to do it.
And there's the challenge. It's not unions that need to be convinced to go to charter schools; it's charter school promoters, operators, advocates and boosters who have consistently, loudly, insistently and repeatedly told us that they don't want unions, don't want the things unions insist on, don't even necessarily want trained professional teachers. The charter industry has made it clear that what they value most is their ability to manage the school however they want without having to answer to much of anyone, and most especially not to have to answer to their employees.
If Cunningham et al really want to sell this, they have to sell it to the charter folks, and they will need to be way more persuasive than anything I've seen so far. If they're serious about selling unionized teachers to the charter industry, they'll have to build a far more forceful case (particularly more forceful than the article that argues, "You can have unions, only they won't actually be like, you know, unions"). And it's not that I don't think such a case can be built...
I'm Just Not Sure They're Serious
There are several possible goals here.
One is to convince charters and unions to live in perfect harmony. If that's the goal, then what I said above applies-- it's charters that need the most convincing. Talk to them.
Another possible goal is simply to convince teachers that the charter operators mean them no harm and are really the friends of teacher unions, so let's all us nice charter people and charter-loving unionists join together to pursue Good Charters in defiance of awful President Cheeto. To achieve this goal, nobody has to get charters to change-- they just have to get teachers and unions to look at charters differently.
The third possibility is that the audience for this is neither charteristas nor teachers unions, but all the progressive Democrats in the peanut gallery. "Look," someone will say, "See how the unions and charters are living together happily? It's totally okay to support charter schools even if President Cheeto does, because he's simply stolen/co-opted/stepped into a cause that belongs to us progressives. So stay here in the Big Reformy Tent."
And of course underlying all of these is the goal of getting everyone to say, "Let's all have charter schools" without even realizing they've said it.
If nothing happens beyond some charter advocates stop badmouthing teachers and our unions, then that's not a bad thing. If charters unionize more widely, turning them into less awful places for teachers to work and students to learn, that's not a terrible thing either.
I have always believed that under the right conditions, there could be a place for charters in the education world. And I have never lost my affection for Shanker's original vision-- teachers starting schools of their own, run the best way they know how, free of the various idiot laws imposed on schools by state and federal authorities. We are living through an age just chock full of idiot laws; that makes the idea of being free of them that much more appealing. Buried in all of this political bobbing and weaving, there are little nuggets that could be Good Things.
But if this is just a new political dance with no real outcome except to keep the charter money train still running comfortably to fat city while public school students continue to get the shaft, then this is not okay. Not even a little. Most troubling of all? No matter how I turn this thing over and look at it, I don't see any angle from which it becomes and obstacle to the destructive policies that Trumpmeister and the DeVostator have planned for public education. And anything that doesn't actively and effectively interfere with federal plans to dismantle public education to replace it with private charter business-- well, anything that doesn't help is hurting, and anything that is hurting is just bad news for all of us.