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This chapter was written with Paul T. Hill and Lydia Rainey of the Center for Reinventing Public Education.
There is no love lost between teachers unions and charter schools. In fact, most states passed charter laws in the face of high-pressure union lobbying and threats of political retribution. Unions oppose charter schools because the new schools bypass collective bargaining agreements and enable publicly funded institutions to hire non-unionized teachers. Indeed, many early charter advocates hoped to overhaul the hiring, firing, and prerogatives of teachers—and thereby break the unions’ power.
Conflict between charter advocates and unions continues to this day. In state legislatures, unions are pressing to limit the numbers of charter schools; in state courts, union lawyers are asserting that the very concept of chartering is inconsistent with state constitutions and local school board control of public education. The venue of hostilities changes from time to time: In the past two years, teachers unions in California and Massachusetts openly agitated to get teachers in charter schools to unionize, while charter school associations and school heads resisted. In New York, the teachers union simultaneously lobbied against lifting the legislative cap on the number of charter schools while suggesting that the union might support a higher cap if charter teachers were allowed to opt in to local bargaining units.
While tensions and disputes between unions and charter advocates persist, the charterunion battleground has shifted subtly in the last 15 years as thousands of charter schools opened across the country. Even the most vociferous union foe of charter schools no longer thinks that charter schools are an ephemeral educational fad that will soon disappear.
At the same time, the naïve hopes of some early charter advocates that the unions could be broken or placated to make way for charter schools have also faded. The two sides are no longer battling over either the charter school movement’s or the unions’ right to exist. Today, the battle is primarily waged over how best to co-exist—and with that fledgling recognition, the two longtime adversaries have begun to explore some small-scale efforts at accommodation. More than ever before, charter leaders and union officials are beginning to deal with one another within charter schools, as teachers at some charters opt to bargain collectively. And a handful of local unions—notably New York City’s United Federation of Teachers—have even joined the charter school movement in a fashion, opting to running a small number of charter schools on their own.
No one, of course, expects that these modest pilot efforts will lead either side to abandon its position. Yet it is important to explore the likely impact on individual charter schools and unions as more charters become unionized and as more unionized instructors teach in charter schools. Will grassroots exposure change charter schools or unions? Will existing conflicts only spread—or will first-person contact lead to more moderation?
In May 2006, the National Charter School Research Project (NCSRP) and the Progressive Policy Institute convened a meeting in Washington, D.C., of 30 union and charter leaders to discuss the future of the charter school-union relationship. Every senior union official and charter association leader invited agreed to attend—evidence of the importance of the issues raised, if not of a desire to calm hostilities. Both the hosts and the attendees treated the meeting as a kind of diplomatic summit that might or might not have practical consequences.
This chapter summarizes highlights of the conference discussion and suggests next steps that might help charter and union leaders expand their current and somewhat narrow ceasefire zone. Conference participants were guaranteed anonymity to ensure frank discussion and are therefore not identified by name in the pages that follow.
Please download the full chapter from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (PDF file).
Also read The Future of Charter Schools and Teachers Unions: Results of a Symposium by Paul T. Hill, Lydia Rainey, and Andrew J. Rotherham.