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The Charter School Conundrum: Public Vs. Private Unions

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There is a reality that explains why so many people have been having trouble deciding how to vote on the charter schools referendum that will be on the November 8 Massachusetts ballot. Voters who are in favor of both high-quality public education and organized labor are disquieted by the fact that charter schools, which have proven to be an invaluable tool for giving underprivileged inner city kids (and others) a superior education, are typically run by non-unionized administrators and teachers. How, one asks, to juggle this conflict?

The answer is deceptively simple, and it lies in the nature of public versus private sector labor unions: While unions in the private sector are essential for the healthy functioning of a broadly-participatory democracy, unions in the public sector proceed on an entirely different basis and all too frequently result in union-management agreements that are profoundly against the public interest and destructive of constituencies—such as public school students—that they in theory are meant to benefit.

Co-author Harvey Silverglate learned this lesson in the 1980s and 1990s when his son Isaac attended public high school in Cambridge, graduating from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in 1996. In the lower grades, Isaac attended an “alternative school,” the so-called King Open School (“KOS”) program, conducted in his neighborhood school building. The KOS underwent something of a trauma when the local teachers’ union, the Cambridge Teachers Association (“CTA”), opposed a number of initiatives that were favored by the parents of KOS children.

Silverglate was sufficiently baffled—stunned might be a better word—by the opposition of the organized teachers to initiatives clearly designed to improve the education of the children. (To give one example: The parents wanted the school to hire an eager and highly qualified young teacher who wanted to come to the KOS from a highly-regarded local private school, but the union stopped her from being hired because she lacked seniority.) So he decided to take advantage of a procedure maintained by the Cambridge School Committee (“CSC”) whereby any citizen could silently observe management/labor negotiations over a new school contract when the old contract expired. Silverglate easily obtained the signatures of two CSC members authorizing him to show up for the bargaining sessions.

But when Silverglate went to attend the first session, the CTA’s lead bargainer, the union president, spotted him sitting in a corner and questioned his right to be there. Silverglate produced the written permission letter signed by the two school committee members. At this point, the union president led her entire bargaining team out of the building, saying that they would return when Silverglate was no longer in attendance.

The school committee obviously got an earful, because at its next meeting, the committee voted to abolish the rule allowing citizens to observe the bargaining session. The bargaining process then proceeded to produce a contract much like the earlier, expired contract. It remained virtually impossible to, for example, hire teachers, even in the innovative open program, who did not enjoy contract-mandated seniority. It was impossible, in other words, to inject “new blood” into the teaching ranks. In Silverglate’s view, the union largely prevailed in its demands, and the children were the big losers.

This experience caused Silverglate to ponder this question: For whose benefit is the public school system essentially designed? The fundamental difference, Silverglate realized, between private and public sector unions and union-management contracts is that in the private sector, each side negotiates with its own financial and work-rule interests at stake. But in the public sector, only one side—the teachers—is putting its own financial interests on the table. The School Committee members put other peoples’ (i.e., the taxpayers’) money on the table, not their own. It is this one-sided imbalance that causes public union contracts to be so contrary to the interests of the citizens and, most importantly, the citizens’ children, namely our future citizens.

Silverglate emerged from this experience a strong supporter of private sector organized labor, but an equally strong opponent of union power in the public sector.

This distinction—between unionization in the public versus the private sphere—goes a long way in explaining why the current referendum seeking a substantial expansion of charter schools so urgently requires a “yes” vote on November 8. This ballot question, and support for charters more generally, is an important even if somewhat indirect way of reducing the one-sided union dominance at the negotiation table and restoring the power of Massachusetts citizens and the centrality of the quality of education. Increasing the charter cap will not destroy teachers’ unions, but it will loosen their monopolistic grip on education policy and practice in Massachusetts.

Anyone who has the interests of public school students at heart, especially those students effectively trapped in underperforming urban and low-income school districts, should take seriously the obvious benefits of combining school choice with an array of public charter schools. A school tightly bound by the kinds of union rules that are part of such contracts throughout the Commonwealth is a school where serious innovation is extremely difficult if not impossible. Lengthening the school day, for example – an innovation almost universally recognized as leading to vastly improved learning—is extraordinarily difficult to achieve in a union bargaining context.

Michael Altman’s essential and fact-based explanation of the issues surrounding Question 2, which should be read in full, puts forth many arguments for increased charter schools and dismantles contrary arguments deployed against them. Most importantly, Altman and others have reminded us that 75 percent of Boston parents support increasing the charter cap. This is hardly surprising—it is their neighborhoods, and their children, who are the primary victims of the current system and would be the beneficiaries of increasing the number of charter schools.

Question 2 is difficult for liberals to deal with because it asks them to choose between groups that they typically care about: union workers and public school teachers on the one hand, and minority and low-income inner city students on the other.

Ultimately, though, deferring to union interests and voting “no” on Question 2 comes disproportionately at the expense of low-income black, Hispanic and recent immigrant children and families. For these families, this ballot question is not merely a philosophical referendum on charter schools versus traditional public schools, nor a civics lesson on the role of teachers’ unions or organized labor in general: The stakes are much more immediate and personal. The trajectory of their children’s lives is at issue, and they cannot afford to wait on the glacial process of union negotiation and reform (assuming that there is any progress at all). Their children (and, one should add, our future citizens) are in the school system now, and they need better options now, or at least as soon as possible. They have spoken overwhelmingly in favor of increasing charter schools, and their reasons are entirely understandable and legitimate. These goals deserve widespread public support.

The teachers’ unions, which are notoriously generous contributors to political campaigns, have enlisted the public support of elected office holders to whose campaigns they are reliable donors—Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Marty Walsh come readily to mind. When making these difficult choices, supporters of organized labor must distinguish between private sector and public sector unions, and between those who have children in the public schools and those who don’t. Whereas unwavering support for private sector unions may keep private corporations in check and provide a needed balance of power, unwavering support for public sector unions can be harmful to the public good and to the children on whom the success of our democracy will someday depend.

In this case, voters should prioritize the right of children to a high-quality education, something not available to them in a disturbingly large number of unionized public schools, especially (but not only) children in low-income school districts. Even firm supporters of organized labor should recognize the imperative—moral, political, economic and educational—of casting a “yes” vote on Question 2.

Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer and writer, is WGBH News’ regular Freedom Watch columnist. Rachel Davidson, a recent graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, is one of Silverglate’s current research assistants.

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