Cover Story

Checkmating charters

The actions and internal documents of teachers unions reveal their intent to undermine charter schools

Issue: "NEA: School bully," June 22, 2002

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.

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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."

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