October 24 — 4:15 pm, 2011

Charter schools are public schools, right?

This guest blog post is from David Stovall, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

As an educator, I have followed the evolving national debate on charter schools with great interest. But one aspect of this important debate is of particular and growing concern: the obstructionist approach of many charter operators toward the democratic right of teachers to form a union. 

In Chicago (where I teach), several charter schools have become unionized, but not without stiff resistance from administrators.

Not surprisingly, Philadelphia is the site of similar struggles, as charter teachers increasingly assert their right to join a union. Unfortunately, as in Chicago, they face determined resistance from their employers.  

But as charter schools expand in both cities, and indeed across the nation, one thing about them is universally understood: they are public schools.

On this, all stakeholders – school operators, parents, teachers, community members, foundations, governments – agree. Charter schools are funded by public dollars and are “political subdivisions” established by state legislatures. End of story, right?

Not so, according to officials at Philadelphia’s New Media Technology Charter School. As Martha Woodall described in a June 2 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, in order to fight a unionizing effort, New Media is “trying to break legal ground by contending that it is not a public school – even though it’s funded entirely by taxpayers.”

On May 2, 2011, New Media teachers filed a petition for union representation and asked the administration to voluntarily recognize their union. But instead of granting recognition, school officials challenged the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board and argued that New Media was a “private school” subject to the authority of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But there is no doubt that Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law gives charter employees the right to organize under the Public Employee Relations Act.

Our national debate on education reform has taken many shapes and forms, but only rarely – because it is considered settled policy – has the “public character” of charter schools been questioned.

Last year an Illinois charter school, Chicago Mathematics and Science Academy (CMSA), promptly invoked “private employer” status when its teachers filed a petition for union representation. Like New Media, CMSA is trying to avoid giving recognition to its teachers’ union.

Though the verdicts are pending, both cases have already ignited a highly consequential debate in our national education discourse: are charter schools public or private?

The charter school movement has always denied – and is very sensitive to – charges that it represents a deeper agenda to privatize public education. Indeed, many charter schools go out of their way to identify as “public charter schools.”

But with New Media’s “private employer” claim, it appears charters want to have it both ways: they are “public” when they want public dollars, but “private” when they want to prevent teachers from unionizing. At the very least, New Media’s actions remove any doubt that some charter advocates want to privatize public schools. Why else would a publicly funded school claim to be private?

The resistance to union rights betrays a simplistic evaluation of why schools fail in the first place. It shows a lack of appreciation of the myriad problems that complicate the learning environment, key among them the worsening economic conditions in many urban neighborhoods.

Charter schools would be well served to see unions as a potential ally, a bulwark against these economic challenges – rather than something they need to fear. What if the charter and labor movements joined together to fight for better and equal funding for all schools, good-paying jobs, and better health care for all? Imagine how much political power such an alliance could generate!

Furthermore, aside from the fact that organizing is a legally protected right, empowering charter teachers gives them the liberty to advocate for students without fear of repercussion. It also effectively deputizes them to serve as the eyes and ears for taxpayers, ensuring the appropriate use of tax dollars by schools and their CEOs. Indeed, as charters increasingly model themselves after the private sector, taxpayers should rightly worry that many have adopted some of its worst practices – among them the excessive compensation of CEOs, often at the expense of student needs.

But, the assault on union rights has other implications beyond the school.

By undermining union rights, especially in this perilous moment for U.S. labor, charter schools such as New Media align themselves with an agenda – championed by GOP governors – to eviscerate unions altogether. And for African American communities already battered by job flight, low wages, and the mortgage-lending crisis, the attack on labor is especially ominous. More than 27 percent of unionized Black workers are employed in the public sector. Indeed, without unions, many public policies important to African Americans – education funding, good wages, health care access, and maintaining the social safety-net – will be imperiled.

In the long run, no school – not even the most innovative ones – will succeed if certain sectors of urban communities continue to spiral downwards.

The attack on unions might make sense to some politicians and charter school officials, but it profoundly undermines the economic interests of our communities. New Media Technology Charter School needs to do the right thing and immediately recognize its teachers’ union. Doing so will confer appropriate honor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s memory, and to one of our country’s best traditions – the right to join a union!

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