Thursday, December 1, 2016

Unionizing Charters (PT. I)

A curious conversation is unfolding over at Education Post, kicked off by this piece by Dirk Tillotson, founder and executive direct of Great Schools Choices, a charter advocacy group. It's a "provocative" piece simply because it is a charter fan writing in favor of unionizing charter work forces.

Tillotson kicks off his conversation by using classic passive voice weaseling to get around a fundamental fact of charter life:

 Charters and unions are often seen as diametrically opposed.

Are seen by whom, one wonders. Then one remembers that charters and unions are seen as diametrically opposed by the vast majority of charteristas, who have for years touted the non-union work force as one of the big selling points of charters. The CEO model of charters has always called for a visionary who doesn't have to answer to restrictive and confining union rules, with many charter player preferring Teach for America style workforces that don't unionize, don't object to enforced 80-hour work weeks, and don't stick around long enough to start telling the CEO what to do. Charters have been dragged into court for union-busting. Ed Secretary-in-waiting Betsy DeVos of course supported charters big-time in Michigan as well as a union-busting right-to-work rule.

One would be hard-pressed over the past decade to find a charter supporter who wanted to make sure that their charter school had a teachers union. In the vast majority of cases, charter support and anti-union stances go hand in hand.

Tillotson tries to gloss over this by observing that the diametrical opposition isn't "accurate" history becaus Great-godfather of charters Albert Shanker was a union guy (I have a sense we're about to hear that factoid brought up a lot), but that's baloney. The modern charter movement has been actively and vocally anti-union, and if Tillotson and Peter Cunningham and other lefty-ish charter supporters want to have a new post-Trump alliance-building conversation, a good start would be some honesty about how we got here.

This is the problem with Tillotson's argument-- though it contains some valid and worthwhile points, it keeps tripping over some uncomfortable truths about the real current situation.

Maybe charters could help teach unions develop a more professional, less industrial model? Sure, that might even be true. Tillotson offers an example and mentions the key-- trusting teachers to do their jobs and not acting as if they must punch the clock. I don't disagree, but the "punch the clock" model has two real sources: 1) districts that don't trust their teachers and demand time-card style "accountability," and 2) districts that can't be trusted to stop demanding "one more hour" of teacher time until teachers are working 100-hour work weeks. In both cases, it's not the union that is the source of the model. Tillotson's right-- a charter run on a more professional model could stop both of those issues. My question-- is there really any reason to believe that charters are more likely to embrace such a model than a public school?

Tillotson also suggests that since failure = death for a charter school (if only-- but let's skip that argument for now) the union is more invested in success for the whole school and not just protecting teacher rights. Protecting the school = protecting teacher jobs. That's an interesting and valid-ish point-- unless we're talking about a charter where survival = making enough profit or ROI for owner/investors of the business. Then it all becomes a little more complicated.

Tillotson suggests that the biggest benefit is an end to expensive time-wasting ugly charter-union wars, and he paints these as wars between equally-culpable combatants who battle on while parents and staff don't really care about this. He invokes the "putting adult concerns ahead of students" trope, which is an unfortunate choice since it's most commonly used to mean "teachers should strop arguing about their rights and let charter advocates do what they know is best" and gets us right back to "teachers working conditions are student learning conditions."

Too much blood is spilt and too much effort is wasted in the charter-union wars and it’s stupid. We’re basically arguing over the same kids, the same staff, and the same goals. We’re all just advocates coming from a different camp.

While I agree with the "wasted effort" portion of this statement, I'm not on board with the old "we're all in it for the kids" part. One of my problems with the modern charter movement is that many operators are clearly not in it for the kids at all; some are there for the money, and some because they believe it is their right and privilege to remake education as they see fit. And many who sincerely believe they are in it for the kids also believe that they, and they alone, know what's best for the kids-- and many of these folks are simply wrong. In other words, I doubt the good intentions of some charteristas, and for those who have good intentions--well, good intentions are not enough, particularly if you depend on expertise you don't actually have while excluding the expertise of people who actually know what they're talking about. So I think it's a bit more complicated than "we all just want the same thing, but disagree on methods."

There is much in Tillotson's piece that is on point--

Families want good schools where kids are treated fairly, and staff want schools where they are supported, can be effective, and are treated fairly.

Neither unionized schools nor non-unionized charters have a monopoly on serving families or treating staff well.

And I welcome reformster's new-found interest in making friends with teachers and their unions. But it's going to be hard to move forward if we can't be honest about where we are and how we got there.

Ed Post chief Peter Cunningham has been hard at work on this conversation, and has (so far) four responses to Tillotson's piece. Ed Post was established as a sort of war room PR operation, so if Cunnigham is doing all this (plus his piece with Shavar Jeffries of DFER), somebody has made some strategic decisions about this business, and that's worth some attention.

In the interests of space, I'm going to cover those four responses in another post to follow shortly.


  1. "Families want good schools where kids are treated fairly, and staff want schools where they are supported, can be effective, and are treated fairly."

    What I don't get is, what are the arguments of anti-union people for why, according to them, unions are against these goals?

  2. Glad you are part of the conversation. Quick story: Somehow, through years of collective bargaining, Chicago ended up with one of the shortest school days in the country -- about 5.5 hours. If I remember correctly, it was about an hour less than the average and, given the mostly low-income population we were serving, a lot less than what kids needed. Chicago also had and has some of the highest teacher salaries in the country -- not high enough for what should be America's most honored profession -- but in relative terms, pretty good. When CPS tried to lengthen the day, the union fought back and when they finally agreed it was all about paying them more -- it wasn't an educational conversation about how to use the time etc. I don't begrudge teachers wanting a good salary, but it would have been nice if they acknowledged the need for more time and sat down in a spirit of cooperation and asked how to make this work for everybody. Instead it was war and It's that kind of adversarial relationship that makes people think unions don't always have at heart the interests of kids -- and that they would make life impossible for charters.
    In commissioning this little series, my question was this" Is there a case that having unionized teachers in charters will actually be better for kids? I'm not saying it's true or false. I'm genuinely interested in the question because I am genuinely tired of the adversarial dynamic between unions and charters.
    I think that great teachers should be starting more charters -- start the schools they have always fantasized about -- with empowered and autonomous teachers calling the shots and managing the schools the way they want. Some of the best charters were started by teachers -- like KIPP and Uncommon -- eager to break away from the bureaucracy and create great schools.
    So let's have the conversation. And let's avoid the cliches and the rhetoric. Who knows -- we might just find something to agree about. I'm an optimist.

  3. Well, one example from CPS isn't very convincing, especially when this is the system that throws away great leaders like Troy LaRaviere. Chicago and NYC seem to both be a hot mess - I think maybe their size makes them too unwieldy to manage effectively. Maybe big systems ought to be broken down into smaller autonomous districts. Unions wouldn't necessarily be against that. I'm also not impressed by the examples of KIPP and Uncommon Schools being started by teachers: KIPP founders each had only two years TFA experience; the one Uncommon Schools founder had no teaching experience, and I can't find anything about the other except that he seems to have been a charter school principal.

    Charter school work weeks seem to be 60-80 hrs. per week. No wonder there's so much turnover. My public school work week, with the extra hours I put in on planning and grading, always averaged at least 52 hours, and I was still always overwhelmed, feeling I couldn't humanly do more, but I needed much more time to do everything I felt I should be doing to do the best job I could. To be more effective, teachers need smaller classes and fewer classes so they have the time to do more creative and thorough planning and can work more with the students individually (and computer programs, in general, cannot substitute for the teacher/student relationship).

    When my mom started teaching there were no unions, and teachers were at the mercy of administration, having to do all sorts of extra duties, outside of teaching, extra time, total exploitation. I can't see how charters would want a unionized staff, because they say they can only "innovate" (though I don't see much I would call "innovation") if they have "flexibility", which means being able to hire and fire at will, and make the teachers do anything they want them to.

    Before 1983 and the book A Nation at Risk, education was a very exciting field, experimenting with student-centered classrooms, teacher-governed schools, and using the best practices of cognitive theory from people like Jerome Bruner. The age of "accountability" made all that grind to a halt. Now we've gone back to Skinnerism and are forced to commit educational malpractice.

    I would love to start my own charter school. The theme would be the history of civilization, to understand where we are, how we got here, and the knowledge contributions of the many cultures of the world, and what we all have in common. I like the individual-centeredness of Montessori and the story-telling and community-centeredness of Waldorf. There are no Montessori or Waldorf charter schools in my state. And it seems you can only start a charter school if you have rich friends. And if you have to teach to a stupid, crappy, not-created-by-teachers big stakes test, there's no point.