Teaching Unions: Will they Build or Destroy Education in Charter Schools?

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Teacher unions have long been recognized for the supportive network of educators they bring together. Some believe unions allow teachers to fight for better rights, higher wages and a greater number of opportunities in their communities. Other educators and parents, often stereotypically associated with charter schools, make the argument that with unions, individual school development is difficult, especially given a contract’s typically high standards and restrictive requirements regarding teacher retention, job security and wages. Given Kahlenberg and Potter’s argument for the importance of teacher voice in their book entitled “Smarter Charter,” understanding the supporting and opposing arguments for unions is imperative to comprehending how charter schools can most effectively start and operate.

Charter schools pride themselves on providing opportunities for teacher voice and autonomy, giving educators the chance to work with “school issues, instruction, curriculum, organization, schooling… evaluation, benefits and professional growth” (85). According to Geoffrey Canada, this opportunity is ultimately destroyed by the presence of unions, (151). Without unions, teachers spend more time in their classrooms with their own planned curriculums. Without unions, some argue teachers in one particular school can work more collaboratively to build a system that is productive for both students and themselves. And yet, other scholars discussed in “Smarter Charter” argue the opposite, suggesting teacher unions actually provide the perfect forum for productive collaboration amongst educators.

In speaking about whether or not teachers wanted to form a union at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans in 2013, the choice was ultimately made “to make sure the collaborative relationships established during the school’s first few years [would] continue as the school grows (157).” Many individuals are particularly supportive of unions and the purpose behind them, even in charter schools — the idea they exist in order to protect individuals working within the education sector. Unions can give teachers a greater number of opportunities to contribute to school decisions (89), allowing them to use their voices to better institutions. They write school-wide policy and create structure by guaranteeing salaries, writing employment contracts and protecting jobs. Unions act as advocates for the associated employees; these employees are then equipped to construct a stable and effective learning environment for students and their families.

Perhaps, enhancing teacher voice and student performance is not about whether the union exists but rather the potential of the schools themselves. The authors write, “What distinguishes great charters is not the absence of a labor agreement, but the presence of an education strategy built around commonsense ideas: More time on task, aligned curricula, high parent involvement, great teacher support, and strong leadership. (87).” But how can national education exist if each school works on its own? Many union and anti-union activists are focused on the politics of education, often arguing the same points from opposing sides. Instead, regardless of whether unions or other forms of co-op governance exist, it is the practice of education with enhanced teacher voice and plans for high quality learning for students in potentially successful and effective charter schools that activists must focus upon instead.

Other Questions for the Authors:

  1. In creating effective schools with empowered teachers and enhanced diversity, how do you view the concept of discipline and its presence in charter schools? In class, we’ve spoken a bit about No Excuses Charter Schools, as you do with your discussion of the KIPP schools and Harlem Children’s Zone. Are these institutions and their discipline systems models for how the rest of the charter community should smartly teach students?
  2. In chapter two, you discuss Joaquin Tamayo’s response to Sarah Fine’s op-ed in “The Washington Post.” He says, “No amount of praise showered on teachers will ever produce the kind of dramatic results we need to close the achievement gap—because, at its core, teaching is never about the teacher” (27). How do you feel this statement will impact individuals interested in becoming teachers? Do you think the way in which teaching is framed will determine how many people choose to join the profession and thereafter, how much respect they receive for their work?
  3. In chapter four, you write about unions within charter schools in varied US cities: New York City, Boston and New Orleans. How do we move forward as a nation with a unified education system if so many disagree on how teaching networks, if they do exist, should operate?
  4. If unions and other forms of co-op governance are not going to bring charter schools closer to public schools, creating a symbiotic relationship, how can the two kinds of schools help one another to improve in other varied ways?
  5. In chapter eight, at the end of the book on page 177, you write, “Why not use charter schools to rethink traditional notions of teacher voice?” I found this idea very engaging, but how do you think this can best be done not just in one or two schools, but truly nationwide?