Yesterday I mentioned this cool initiative in Minnesota to allow a teachers union to authorize charter schools. Late yesterday afternoon the president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers sent the following letter to teachers in Minneapolis. Read it yourself because it’s interesting in a few places (especially the line about schools inside or outside of school districts) and illustrates the various audiences union leaders must balance. But, a few contextual things are worth noting.
First, “CMOs” (Update – to be clear – as distinct from for-profit EMO’s, which comprise about 13 percent of charters nationally but are mostly found in a handful of states) are only “private” in the sense that they’re not run by traditional school districts. About 16 percent of charters nationwide are part of a CMO. They’re non-profits (so to be clear since there is obviously some confusion: They don’t make a profit and that’s not a goal) and public bodies have to give them approval to open schools – they’re highly integrated with the public system. And their growth if fueled by, you know, parents choosing these schools. Second, although the ‘charters were Shanker’s idea and then there was a fall that we must struggle to overcome’ rhetoric is a catchy narrative it’s not quite right. The history and various streams of thought in the charter world are more complicated – and full of tension. Third, despite the ‘to the barricades at last!’ rhetoric, in practice this could reasonably be considered the third teachers union foray into charter schooling. To recap, the National Education Association launched a big initiative that subsequently fizzled. The UFT in New York City opened some schools and they’re facing some challenges. Bottom line: Opening and running really good schools is hard work. You’d think that would create more curiosity about how exactly the networks that have managed to do it at some scale do it.
This is a long email but is important information for you to know…thanks for taking the time to read it.
MFT has been working to become an authorizer of public school charters over the past 18 months – which we were just approved to be by the Minnesota Department of Education with the support of the American Federation of Teachers. The information below tells you why we are pursuing this since it may cause some of you to question it – especially in light of the history of charters. I have sent out some preliminary information to you about this work over the past year and have also shared it with stewards at several meetings. This is a progress report.
Everything the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers does these days, in one way or another, is designed to support educators so they can have a voice in improving education overall and increasing student achievement, specifically. As educators, we all have a fundamental belief in each student and truly want them to be successful in school and in life. Some of the ways the MFT approaches these efforts is to find and implement ideas that will help us continuously improve our profession and strengthen our union work as advocates for students. It is critical work given the attacks on teachers, public education and unions. We cannot step back and merely protest these attacks (that come in many forms) – we must move forward and lead.
An idea I had two years ago was to move forward and lead the way to take on the charter school movement. I realize for many of us, charter schools are associated with bad things. The idea of charter schools was born from AFT President Albert Shanker’s thinking some 30 years ago. He thought charters could become lab schools that inform the larger school system. Unfortunately, his idea was abducted by others and shape-shifted into something else very different from Shanker’s original idea. Too often, charters haven’t respected teachers, their unions, or delivered on the promise of student achievement.
But, it is also true that charter schools are not going away despite 20 years of protesting. Because of this, it is time to figure out how to bring our kidnapped idea back home so we can also stop the de-professionalization of teaching, the bleeding out of our unions and the miseducation of too many students. While new state laws are tightening up the approval process for charters and for authorizers, as well as the oversight of them both, charters continue to grow. It is time to “get in the game” and make it ours.
While the mom and pop charters are not at issue, the larger corporate, privately run Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) schools are. CMO schools are spreading across the country and taking over major, urban school districts leaving professional teachers and their unions out in the cold. These corporate run CMOs have several goals in mind: take over public education, take down the unions, drown out our professional voice by having complete control over teachers, and, make a profit. We can look to New Orleans as an example of a complete take over by a CMO. There are at least 8 other urban districts in America who have between 40-60% of CMO schools in existence. Minneapolis has its first CMO school – opened this past fall. To open the CMO school, one of our existing schools (Cityview) was closed to make room for it. We protested loudly all of this happening along with families and students – to no avail. Only one MPS teacher now works in the CMO school – the rest of the MPS teachers were pushed out along with the union. As you might guess, the salaries are much lower for those in the CMO school but the work hours and duties are the same. For this reason, we must strategize how to stop the proliferation of CMOs and ensure the health and welfare of public education. Becoming an authorizer is just one strategy – we are working to find others as well.
I want to seize the opportunity for our union to help shape the future of our profession and of education – whether it is inside or outside of a school district – charter or traditional. So, about 18 months ago, with the approval of the MFT Executive Board, I went ahead and applied for an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) innovation grant. We were approved. The innovative idea the AFT approved was centered on unions taking back the charter school movement by becoming authorizers (approvers) of charter schools. This would ensure charters authorized by unions will: be high quality schools, monitored for progress, keep our union responsibilities and rights as an option, and make sure teachers are respected and have a voice in the the schools in which they work. As an authorizer, we will put students and educators front and center so their ideas are valued and used. The AFT has been very supportive of this effort – so much so that they continued funding for a second year. The majority of the AFT funds go to pay for a director, who is a former MPS teacher.
If every union local in the U.S. had the capacity to authorize charter schools, we just might be able to compete with the CMOs. Imagine a movement of our own. I cannot think of a better and more important time for us to make it happen.
Thank you for your time and attention. I am open to and appreciate all comments and ideas as we move forward.
Lynn Nordgren MFT President, Local 59