Charter schools have come a long way from Albert Shanker’s vision of an alternative education arena that helps improve public schools while increasing teacher voice and racial and socioeconomic integration. Now, charter schools have become a conservative, free-market alternative that act as competitors to public schools and resist unionization.
Teacher voice is important for both teachers’ rights and better learning conditions for students. Teacher voice does not just mean unionization: it relates to teachers’ roles in decisions on “instruction and curriculum; organization, scheduling, and teaching assignments; hiring, evaluation, and dismissal; salaries and benefits; and teacher professional growth” (85). Teacher turnover is a major problem in charter schools, which have an average turnover of 24.2% versus 11.9% in traditional public schools (39). According to a study by Ingersoll, turnover is correlated with teacher voice: schools with low teacher control in social issues have an average turnover rate of 19%, relative to 4% in schools with high levels (36). In terms of achievement, research shows that schools with unionized teachers have higher achievement levels (though these variables are difficult to measure) (30). This evidence is backed by arguments that empowering teachers brings in more qualified candidates and creates a better learning environment (30-31). Moreover, low rates of unionization in charter schools is not only problematic for those schools; Shanker warned that this pitted teacher unions against charter schools, undermining the latter’s capacity to act as laboratories for public schools (22).
As charter school legislation was enacted in various states, it failed to include collective bargaining rights for teachers. Conservative charter school advocates began to see this as the defining advantage of charter schools over traditional public schools; unions were seen as the cause of unnecessary bureaucracy, micro-management, and restrictions that favored teachers over students (17). Kahlenberg and Potter argue that the image of teacher unions as “defenders of self-interested policies” is inaccurate and outdated; unions have taken middle-ground positions and some have supported merit-based salaries for teachers (31). However, they fail to address on a wider scale the issue of unions protecting bad teachers and preventing accountability. In order to empower educators with new visions, conservative charter school advocates have given preference to school management over teachers to avoid the restrictions unions have imposed on school districts. This has the negative consequence of disempowering teachers and preventing them from having the time, resources, class sizes, compensation, and creativity they need to be a vocal part of charter school experimentation.
You say that charter schools have the “potential to fulfill the great democratic mission of American public education” (5). In what way do you see charter schools as democratic, when they tend to be more “free-market” institutions controlled by private organizations rather than the elected government?
Teacher unions are condemning charter schools because they are resistant to unionization, while charter school advocates are critical of unions for opposing conservative charter school ideology. Is this a vicious cycle, and how can we get out of it?