Today, the United Federation of Teachers in New York is poised to vote to apply for charters to open two charter schools. You’ll hear plenty of carping on the dissonance between this move and the apparent guerilla war the national AFT (and NEA for that matter) is waging on charter schools.
But that’s not the real story, which is really two-fold. First, the UFT should be commended for this move. At a bare minimum it’s a good way to create a few more decent public options in New York City. If universities, community groups, non-profits, and others are playing in the charter sector, it seems self-evident that a powerful actor like the teachers’ union in the city should be, too.
Second, at the same time, everyone must beware the Potemkin Village trap. Obviously, part of the UFT’s goal here is to show that high quality, effective schools, can be created within the existing master contract for teachers. But that’s not really a serious point of debate is it? Such schools exist now. The analytic question is whether overall the master contract helps or hinders efforts to improve educational quality in New York, and obviously elsewhere. And, worth noting that in larger systems, isolated islands of success often displace problems to other schools.
So, while everyone should hope the UFT effort succeeds and a couple more good public schools come of it, like many things in education it’s ultimately going to be anecdotal in terms of larger lessons. That doesn’t mean it’s devoid of value as a policy lesson, but must be viewed in context. Also, speaking of anecdotal, this is not the first time a local teachers’ union has gone down this road and the record is mixed…
Afterthought: This move obviously also gets at the issue of whether charter school teachers should be unionized which has big implications considering the trends on the horizon (declining teachers’ union membership in right-to-work (often high growth) states, more and more charters, etc…). It’s a point of debate considering the ideologically diverse coalition supporting charter schools. For what it’s worth, Eduwonk thinks that teachers should be if they want to be. Some charters are organized and that’s great, some are discussing whether to organize – one in PA just did the other day – and some do not want to. Shouldn’t teachers at individual charter schools be able to decide for themselves? Arguing it the other way calls into question all this rhetoric about professionalism and autonomy doesn’t it?