KIPP’s Union

There has been a lot of commentary about this NYT story about the unionization drive at the KIPP school in New York.  Two quick points, which are both obviously open to debate.

First, I don’t know exactly what is or is not happening at the school.  But, isn’t this one possible counter-hypothesis to the assertions in the story:  This school is populated with a lot of people — on all sides of the issue of whether or not to unionize — who care deeply about kids, care deeply about the school and its mission, and are going through this process for the first time?  In other words, there is an assumption that this is Wal-Mart or some other entity with a track record of and skill set for fighting union drives when in fact it may just be a case of people fumbling through a new and complicated situation.

Second, there seems to be a general assumption that the union has the leverage here.  But doesn’t KIPP actually have it?   Given the dynamics (this is about public relations more than substance since we’re talking about one school) it seems to me that it will be far more damaging for the teachers’ unions if KIPP walks away saying that this won’t work for them than if the union says KIPP won’t agree to their terms.  After all, in the court of public opinion KIPP’s brand is a lot more powerful than the teachers’ union these days.   That’s why at the end of the day I’d bet we see a deal.   But also why regardless of how it turns people will want to ascribe enormous importance to it even if it really is essentially a one-off.    We’ll know a lot more after this does or doesn’t play out at dozens of schools.

Background here.

Update:  Matt Ladner calls me out as a teachers’ union apologist.   Perhaps.  But I think the specter Matt describes isn’t likely here because of this leverage question.   Having looked closely at this issue from a couple of perspectives I’d say that the first generation contracts will not be onerous at all.   It’s the second and third generation effects that are unknown and important for charter schools to think through.   Yet there is risk there for the teachers’ unions, too.  Namely dilution.   The more reformist agreements they sign onto and the more common the portfolio approach to contracts becomes then the harder it gets to defend a lot of the work rules that exist in many places.   And, it’s possible to envision a scenario where they become sort of like AAA.  People sign up for services they like but are largely ignorant of the organization’s public policy positions and advocacy.   There is some of that going on now as it is.  That could mean several things, good and bad, for education politics.

In terms of this situation specifically, one reader also writes to point out that, “The other issue is that the union faces a tremendous risk here. This is a great school. If it is anything less than great over time, the teachers’ union will be blamed in a high-profile way for ruining yet another school.   The point being that there is a public relations incentive for them to offer up a deal that is favorable to the management of a great school.”

9 Replies to “KIPP’s Union”

  1. Think for a second what a compromise means. It could mean that we have the wisdom to celebrate the fact that we “are going through this process for the first time?” It could mean that we’re becoming the team players that President Obama needs.

    Compromise, right now, means victory for all.

  2. Hi Andrew,

    My take on this issue is almost 180 degrees from yours. I think there’s much at stake here and that the unions are likely to win.

    Everyone knows that KIPP demands quite a bit more of its teachers than a traditional public school: giving out their cell phones numbers; staying at school longer; adhering to KIPP’s detailed, difficult protocols. This is radical stuff.

    Unions, by definition, are a labor cartel. They represent the interests of both effective and ineffective teachers. Labor economists know unions bring wage compression, job protection, and increased employee autonomy in the classroom.

    In short, unionization could conceivably do to KIPP what it did to the Detroit auto industry. Even if it doesn’t destroy the entire system, it could undermine it in subtler, only-slightly-less-disastrous ways.

    If you think the unions are too high-minded to purposely sabotage the prospects of generations of disadvantaged kids just to retain a great deal of money and power, I humbly ask you to look at
    another story from Detroit.

  3. OTOH, unionized auto workers in Japan and Germany make a good wage, participate in the management of their factories, and generate nice profits for the manufacturers. Perhaps we just need some new management strategies.

  4. Andy-

    I do not view you as a teacher union apologist, but rather was simply making the point that the normal practice of a KIPP Academy is very much at odds with typical union contracts.

    As Cavalier Orange points out in the comment above, it is not at all the case that the education unions deserve the benefit of any doubt.

  5. There’s a reason why the German and Japanese transplant auto factories in the US are in right-to-work states…

  6. Eduwonk:

    Don’t you think that the AFT might think it’s in something of a zero-sum game — precisely because its brand is so much lower status than KIPP’s is these days?

    I’ve got no beautiful mind, but I would bet that John Nash would agree — if you think you are in a zero-sum game, then you play for keeps — regardless of what the spectators think.

    So if the AFT drives KIPP out of a couple of its New York schools, why won’t it think that couldn’t drive KIPP out of more elsewhere — and why wouldn’t it think that that would be a good idea?

    There aren’t that many KIPP schools. The fewer KIPP schools there are, the harder it is to prove the case that traditional union contracts stand in the way of progress for kids.

    What are the spectators going to do? Say the AFT is bad? Has that stopped them from trying to grow before?

    You don’t have to think that the AFT doesn’t care for kids to imagine this scenario (that’s where I part ways with the fire-breathers above). If anything, the fact that the AFT thinks they’re right (KIPP and its friends are the true enemies of progress for kids) will only make them fight harder.

    If I were running KIPP, I’d be very careful about appearing like you can be run off your “own” schools.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.