Join Or Die?

Like Nelson Smith* I was disappointed in Rick Kahlenberg’s** Ed Week essay on charter schools at 20. Nelson raises some legitimate issues, and I also think that the economic/racial segregation issue is a something of a cheap shot, can you really hold open-admission public schools accountable for problems of residential segregation? That’s a larger social policy problem that to his credit Rick does a lot of work on. And, while calling for schools that follow Al Shanker’s “original” mission Rick neglects to inform readers that among those that do today, and there are a bunch, their outcomes really aren’t any better or worse than the average either…in fact, the NEA’s attempt to get into chartering was a real disaster.

Bigger picture, Rick’s piece just left me hungry. He asserts that “allowing unions to represent teachers, charter schools would eliminate the chief political obstacle to expansion.” If we are actually talking about, you know, education here, then it seems to me that the unions need a better message than that…

How about: Here are three or five ways that teachers’ unions could concretely add-value to the really good charters that are out there now and help address the policy problems that at once lead to lousy charter schools and hamper the good ones. Outside of a general lack of trust, that’s the basic logjam in the charter – union debate right now, the high-performing networks and schools just don’t see the value-proposition and outside of a political pitch the unions are not offering one.

“Join or die” worked better as a message in the American Revolution than it does for appealing to charter schools at 20. Although Rick works the easy “anti-union” tag into his piece, charters are not a vast-right wing conspiracy but rather mostly a vast left-wing one (albeit funded in some cases by right-wing money). On the ground, most charter schools are not anti-union or pro-union, they really don’t care one way or the other, but are instead pragmatic and want to see how a teachers’ union or any other union can help further their mission. There are 4,000 now so the extreme anecdotes on both sides shouldn’t define the debate.

Steve Barr at Green Dot has squared this circle but that’s about it so far at any scale. UFT leader Randi Weingarten is trying in New York City but it’s too soon to tell. More specifics and evidence on “join and be better” would help that conversation along.

*On whose board I served until recently.
**He’s an ES non-resident senior fellow.

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