Torri Hurst's face is buried in a book. A 6th-grader at Robert Mueller Charter School in Chula Vista, Calif., Torri sports eyeglasses, a short afro, and a tall I.Q. At intervals, he raises his head to chat quietly with tablemates Carlos and Reuben. The book Torri holds inches from his nose is Lois Lowry's The Giver, about a 12-year-old boy's rejection of social utopia. But Torri can read 10th-grade books and handle 7th-grade math-and does at Mueller, because his teacher Jennifer Cook, in accordance with the school's charter, personalizes Torri's education.
Across campus in a 3rd-grade classroom, Torri's brother Deonte reads 5th-grade books. Last year, Torri and Deonte attended a traditional public school in Oklahoma City. Torri was bored with his classwork, says his mom Yumiko Hurst, and regularly took Harry Potter books to class to keep him busy while other students caught up. Deonte had different problems at the school: By the end of 2nd grade, he still struggled to read Dr. Seuss.
But Mueller Charter School may soon become more like their old public school. The Chula Vista Education Association, a local affiliate of the National Education Association, is fighting to fold the school's 42 teachers into its collective bargaining unit. Such absorption is one strategy the National Education Association (NEA) and its affiliates are using to mute the charter-school movement. But when organizing fails, the gloves come off. As education reformers celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first charter school, union actions and documents reveal that teachers unions are determined to bludgeon charters-independently run schools funded with tax dollars-into failure:
- In 2001, the Ohio Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's charter law (nationwide, 12 similar challenges have failed). OFT attorneys then served subpoenas on all 68 of the state's charter schools requesting "any and all" records including financial and confidential personnel records, the Center for Education Reform reports. Charter-school proponents warned that giving the unions access to personnel records "would enable the OFT to engage in a campaign of harassment against teachers working at charters."
- Last December in Buffalo, N.Y., the staff of School 18 voted 58-8 to convert to a charter. But the Buffalo Teacher's Federation, the NEA's local affiliate, told School 18 teachers that if they converted, they'd lose tenure, seniority, maybe even their pensions. The union then swiftly cobbled together an "informed secret vote" which promptly reversed the conversion decision.
- In 2001, the Hawaii legislature changed the funding formula for charters, slashing some school budgets by as much as 30 percent, and sending some to the brink of failure.
A series of unrelated incidents, or a coordinated strategy? Thomas B. Fordham Foundation president and education scholar Chester E. Finn says the incidents are coordinated. "I don't think it exaggerates to say that a war is being waged against charter schools," he wrote in an April editorial. According to internal union documents obtained by California-based Education Intelligence Agency (EIA), the NEA's battle against charters is a multi-front attack: Teachers unions intend to organize, regulate, and steer charters into what EIA president Mike Antonucci calls "watered-down irrelevancy."
Unionization itself doesn't bother most charter-school proponents; it's the NEA's specific agenda that has them worried. "Barring a complete reversal of philosophy by the union, the NEA will continue to be the primary cheerleader for charter-school failure," Mr. Antonucci said.
So far, the charter concept is blossoming. Legislators in 37 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing charter starters to craft innovative operational and academic plans, and operate them without some of the constraints imposed by local districts. The first charter opened its doors in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992. Today more than a half-million children attend 2,400 charters across the country. Typically, such schools are not unionized.
Therein lies the NEA's problem: Not only do many charters highlight the failures of public schools, they also threaten the NEA's grip on the education industry's labor supply.
The NEA's Pennsylvania affiliate (PSEA) in December 1999 launched what it called the "Charter Schools Strategic Options Project." PSEA called in the presidents of the Illinois Education Association and the powerful Michigan Education Association to plot solutions to the unions' "charter school problem." At the same time, the NEA launched its own study.
In 2000, PSEA announced its findings in the report EIA later obtained and made public: "PSEA will adopt the most aggressive response [to charters] in those situations in which the local union is strong and there is a high likelihood of preventing or delaying the opening of a charter." The union also listed its top priority with regard to existing charter schools: "Maintain and increase union membership."
In 2001, the NEA issued its own report, in which it made a stunning confession: The criteria by which the union judges charter schools "are cast in such broad and unqualified terms that they would, if literally applied, undermine the charter school concept and have the effect of shoving charter schools back into a non-charter school box." The NEA also put in black and white its innate conflict with the charter movement: "... charter schools implicate-and if imperfectly designed and operated could undermine-certain core values of NEA." Of course, teacher compensation is NEA's main core value, as any union executive will tell you.
Mueller Charter principal Kevin Riley once worked that side of the education fence. As a former union organizer in California's Pauma District, he represented teachers in collective bargaining. Today, though, he's trying to run a charter just a few miles north of the Mexican border. Mr. Riley is a young 46-year-old-he wears jeans and a goatee to school and sports a tiny earring. "We have a premise here," he says. "That the children here can perform every bit as well as the kids in affluent communities."
Mueller sits in a low-income neighborhood in Chula Vista, Calif. Across the street, iron bars shield windows from intruders. A chain-link fence separates the playground from the back end of a trailer park. Mueller students are mostly Hispanic and African-American, with a few Asian and Native American kids. About one in 10 students is white, seven in 10 come from families poor enough to qualify for free school lunch, and half speak only Spanish. Many suffer from troubles that often boil up from poverty: drugs, gangs, violence, domestic abuse and, sometimes, parental ambivalence. But to Mr. Riley, such roadblocks can serve as one of two things: excuses for sub-par pupil performance-or hurdles to be leapt with innovation. He opts for the latter: "How do we use our status as a charter to overcome the effects of poverty?"
Just two ways Mueller is leveraging its independence from the district system: First, students "loop," or stay with one teacher, for three years. (Anti-poverty effect: Providing stability at school for kids who often face upheaval at home.) Second, at the beginning of the school year, every teacher visits the home of every student in his or her class. (Anti-poverty effect: Forming a parent-teacher alliance on behalf of the child.)
One strategy Mueller isn't using: collective bargaining. At least, not yet. During a staff-wide budget meeting in January, some teachers expressed concern over Mueller's lack of a union-style "step-and-class" pay structure. The Chula Vista Education Association (CVEA) later rushed in to organize the group.
But teacher Jennifer Cook, who doesn't want to join CVEA, told WORLD that many of the budget cuts required to put such a pay scale in place would gut Mueller's charter. One of the first options discussed, for example, was cutting Mueller's 20-odd paid parent aides. But parental involvement weighs heavily in Mueller's charter. "How can you say these things are important enough to put in the charter, and yet cut them as soon as pay becomes an issue?" Mrs. Cook asks. She fears that charters adopting a unionized step-and-class pay scale will not only sacrifice the ability to innovate, but ultimately will drown in red ink.
Organizing is just one way unions are attacking charters, Mr. Antonucci says. NEA-friendly state and local education officials seem determined to regulate charters to death. In New Mexico, for example, the Albuquerque Board of Education allows charters responsibility for their own operation, budget, contracting, and personnel matters-but requires charters to follow district rules and procedures in every one of those areas. Recently, the board hiked charters' fees sevenfold.
Another example of death by regulation: The Charter Schools division of Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) last year called for charter schools to increase their percentage of state-certified teachers from 80 percent to 100 percent, according to a School Reform News report. At the same time, though, DESE's Teacher Quality and Urban Education division called for a reduction in the number of certified teachers required in regular public schools-a response to a growing teacher shortage in the state.
At least 65 studies sing charters' praises, according to the Center for Education Reform, which has published a summary of study results. The NEA's charter schools resource Web page fails to mention most of them, perhaps taking special care to omit the U.S. Department of Education's 2001 finding that charters motivate improvements in traditional public schools. The Texas Public Policy Foundation found that Lone Star State charters operate less expensively than other public schools. Research conducted last year in Texas, Colorado, and Arizona revealed that students who continued in charters achieved greater academic gains than their district school counterparts. Other studies in 1999 and 2000 showed charters increased parental satisfaction, better served troubled kids, and attracted quality teachers who enjoyed charters' ethos of professional autonomy.
But not all reform-minded conservatives are happy with charters' progress. Fordham Foundation's Chester Finn, for example, supports charters, but charges that the movement is "leaderless," "rudderless," and "losing its edge." Despite generally positive reports such as those cited above, Mr. Finn says incidents of poor planning, ill-conceived state laws, and a small but visible group of greedy charter operators threaten to turn charters into a "faux reform."
Take Gateway Academy in Fresno, Calif., where police seized administrative records and 60 computers in a raid earlier this year. The California Department of Justice is now investigating large cash withdrawals from the school's accounts and monetary claims to the state for which students may not have qualified. Fiscal mismanagement also sank the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harrisburg, Pa., this year and three charters in Minnesota in 2001.
Such missteps make charters an easier target, which suits the NEA's purposes. In an era of decline among industrial unions, the NEA remains one the most powerful political machines in America. The union boasts 2.5 million members, an active presence in every state, and an annual budget of more than $1 billion. But the national union and its state affiliates spend only a small percentage of their overall budgets on actual labor union activities. For example, the Washington Education Association spends just 25 percent of approximately $47 million in annual dues on such activities as collective bargaining, grievance procedures, and contract negotiations, according to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, an Olympia, Wash., think tank. That leaves $38 million to spend on other activities, like politics.
That elects a lot of anti-charter politicians who write a lot of anti-charter legislation. In New York alone nearly two dozen bills that would steer and restrict charters are marching through the statehouse. In 1999 California legislator Carol Migden tried to ram AB 631 through the Golden State assembly. As written, the bill required every charter teacher to bargain collectively through his local union. As passed, the law requires charter teachers to form some sort of collective-bargaining unit-even if it's only among the teachers themselves. Ms. Migden is an NEA darling, having received regular contributions from the California Teachers Association.
Charter teachers and administrators WORLD spoke with say they resist union membership because collective bargaining and union centralization flies in the face of charters' ability to innovate for the good of students. It's not that they're necessarily anti-union; it's that they realize the NEA's ethos of centralization and standardization clashes with the charter ethos of decentralization, local autonomy.
Ten years ago, Yvonne Chan was among the first to learn that lesson. Ms. Chan, principal of Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, in 1993 became head of the nation's very first "conversion" charter-a traditional public school that becomes a charter. Two years before Vaughn became a charter, it was one of the darkest holes in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Prior to Ms. Chan's arrival, drug dealers worked openly on campus. Death threats drove the previous principal out of the job. Teacher turnover stood at 60 percent. And students' test scores lurked in the district's cellar.
As a public-school teacher and administrator, Ms. Chan had for many years been involved with United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). Since California is a "closed shop" state, every Vaughn teacher also was a dues-paying member of the local, state, and national union. But as the Vaughn team worked to turn the school around, they noticed that the union's interests didn't mesh with their own.
"We reduced class size according to our charter-the union contract didn't say that," said Ms. Chan. "Our teachers made budget decisions-the union contract didn't say so. Our teachers wanted to work longer hours-the union contract didn't say so. In fact, 99 percent of 187 pages were not applicable to us."
To irrelevance, UTLA added insult: Whenever Ms. Chan went to Sacramento to speak with legislators about charters, she found her own union sitting on the opposite side of the policy table. "I pay my dues," she'd tell union reps. "Why don't you represent me?" Although Ms. Chan and her staff remained loyal to the union until 1998, the teachers ultimately voted to break away. Today the Center for Education Reform ranks Vaughn as one of the most academically successful and efficiently run charter schools in the country.
NEA state affiliates realize the peril of such breakaway schools. With startling baldness, PSEA (the Pennsylvania affiliate) spelled it out in its 2000 report on charters: "Act 195 granted PSEA and the Federation a legal monopoly to represent public education employees.... 'All' we have to do is to convince teachers and support personnel to join.... The timeworn debate whether we are primarily a professional association or a union obscures a critical point. The main source of PSEA's influence is that almost all Pennsylvania teachers are unionized. If we want to maintain our influence, our ability to do ANYTHING, we must make sure that education remains a unionized industry" (emphasis in original). At Mueller Charter, the Chula Vista Education Association is doing its part.
Mueller's attorney last month sent a letter to the Public Employment Relations Board stating concerns over whether unionizing Mueller teachers would cause the school to violate its charter, forcing the school to close. CVEA had hoped to have Mueller teachers vote by the end of the school year. Since the letter, the vote is on hold.
Mr. Riley's objection to unionizing Mueller teachers isn't political. It's just that, like Ms. Chan and other charter operators around the nation, he believes union structure is at loggerheads with charters' attempts at real reform. "We've seen time and time again where school employees' interests conflict with the interests of children," Mr. Riley said. "And it seems like the kids always lose."