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Another Educational World Is Possible

And it is being built in East New York.

At The Chalkboard, Joe Williams continues a dialogue on the purpose of teacher unionism with a response to our recent Edwize post, A Window into the Hearts and the Minds of Teacher Unionists. He allows that teacher unions and collective bargaining may make perfect sense as a response to the bureaucratic organization of a system of factory model schooling. But are they up to the task of creating a new, alternative school model which work for students and teachers? More specifically, are unions and collective bargaining compatible with establishing such schools?

The answer to the question lies in two New York City charter schools that Joe Williams did not discuss when he was making a case for teachers being treated with respect in other charter schools, the UFT Elementary Charter School and the UFT Secondary Charter School. These two East New York charter schools provide a powerful point of reference, not simply of the educational principles and the vision of schooling teacher unions profess, but of our ability to ‘walk the walk’ we profess. It is instructive to compare these schools to non-union NYC charter schools, and to schools within the NYC Department of Education. For ease of illustration, we will use the UFT Secondary Charter School, although in almost all pertinent categories, the two schools are identical. Both schools follow the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the UFT and the NYC Department of Education, in order to demonstrate that it provides no serious impediment to creating excellent schools serving communities of high academic need.

Let’s start with the basic compensation package, since this is an issue raised by non-union NYC charter schools and discussed by Joe Williams. Teachers and other pedagogical staff at the UFT Secondary Charter School are paid on the Department of Education schedule, for the same work day and work year. A few non-union charter schools pay an annual salary which is more than the Department of Education schedule, but they also demand a much longer work day, work week and work year, and the additional salary is only a fraction of full, pro-rata compensation for the additional time. Further, the teachers and other pedagogical staff at the UFT Secondary Charter School receive health care coverage equivalent to that provided by the Department of Education, they are included in the Teacher Retirement System, and as members of the UFT, they receive all of the benefits of the UFT Welfare Fund [optical, dental and prescription coverage]. No non-union NYC charter school provides health care coverage and welfare fund benefits anywhere near as comprehensive as that provided at the UFT Secondary Charter School and in district pubic schools, and no non-union NYC charter school includes their pedagogical staff in the Teacher Retirement System.

What is important here is not simply that the UFT Secondary Charter School matches exactly the compensation package of the Department of Education, but that we do not require additional mandatory time of the teaching staff. A minimum of a duty-free lunch, a full preparation period and a full professional period are given to each teacher, and the advisory counts as a teaching period. [For advisories to deliver on their promise and be effective, they can not be ad hoc rap sessions, but should be based on a curriculum, be taught with lesson plans and be part of a teacher’s teaching load.] These limits, dismissed as ‘work rules’ by the likes of Joel Klein, are important because there is a law of diminishing returns in the quality of teaching that comes into play when one adds more and more instructional time to a teacher’s schedule, as non-union NYC charter schools do. The argument given for adding more instructional time to teacher schedule is that at risk students need more of it. Never one to be restrained by such little things as facts, Eva Moskowitz has proclaimed that the NYC collective bargaining agreement makes it impossible to provide more instructional time for students – despite the fact that the UFT Secondary Charter School does precisely that. The mechanism is as simple as putting teachers on overlapping early and late schedules. In this same vein, the school week at the UFT Secondary Charter School includes student community service on Wednesday afternoon, which provides close to three hours every week for professional development, and for teachers to meet, discuss student progress, and plan and coordinate academic work – within the regular work day. All of these arrangements allow the school to provide much more instruction and help for students, without intensifying teacher work to the point that teaching quality suffers, and teachers burn out and leave the profession.

When teachers at the UFT Secondary Charter School do work beyond the regular work day and work year, whether it be to attend a summer institute or as an advisor for student extra-curricular activities, we will show “our appreciation” by – novel idea – paying them for their work and time [at the Department of Education per session rate]. Like the teachers at non-union NYC charter schools such as Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy, the teachers at the UFT Secondary Charter School will be participating in two weeks of professional development and planning this summer. But when our teachers are done, they will have a substantial pay cheque, above and beyond their annual salary, which they can use to pay the rent, buy groceries, or pay the college tuition of their children. [In a classic “let them eat cake” gesture, Moskowitz showed her “genuine appreciation” for three weeks of hard week by her teachers by… giving them a free massage at a salon, and proclaiming her generosity to the world. If our teachers are partial to the life of leisure of the Upper East Side gentry, they will be able to buy a full month of massages with their pay for the two weeks.] There is no additional pay for extra work at non-union NYC charter schools.

Unlike non-union NYC charter schools, which use at will employment where a teacher can be fired for virtually any reason, such as that experienced by Nichole Byrne Lau and her colleagues at the Williamsburg Charter High School, the UFT Secondary Charter School has due process protections for all staff, including a procedure analogous to tenure. [New York charter school law excludes charter school staff from section 3020 of the state education law which covers tenure, so we developed our own tenure rights.]

The UFT Secondary Charter School is distinguished from both NYC Department of Education schools and non-union charter schools in its philosophy of teacher professionalism. It is not simply that the school will have a Teachers’ Center, staffed by a specialist in professional development, or that their classes will have curricula developed by teams of Teachers’ Center secondary subject specialists, together with the best textbooks and materials those specialists could find. Nor is it just that every teacher will be given all of the technological tools a classroom teacher could want, from their own laptop with wireless Internet connections to their very own pages on the school’s web site to linked wireless laptops for their classes to “smart boards” in every classroom, together with the support of a instructional technology specialist to work with them to get the maximum benefit from these tools. Nor is it only that the teachers will have unfettered access to telephones, the Internet and copying facilities in the school. All of this is vital, and all of it provides the UFT Secondary Charter School teachers with the essential tools and supports of a professional educator.

Yet the reach of teacher professionalism at the UFT Secondary Charter School goes far beyond access to professional tools and professional supports, as important as they are. Respect for teacher knowledge and teacher skill is the organizing principle of our school. The predominant instructional model for non-union charter schools, in the United States as well as in New York City, follows a pattern of employing novice and inexperienced teachers, and having them use “teacher proof” curricula and work overtime with students to compensate for their lack of skill; after a few years, they burn out, and are replaced by another group of novice, inexperienced teachers. The model at the UFT Secondary Charter School is to hire and retain accomplished, experienced teachers who know their subject matter and teaching well, and have them use their skill and sophisticated teaching techniques and strategies to ‘teach smart.’ That is why we are building a culture of educational collegiality and collaboration, and why we promote teacher leadership and lead teachers.

Teacher voice is indispensable to the governance of our school. Our governing Board of Trustees includes teachers elected by their peers in the two UFT Charter Schools, parents elected by their peers, representatives of the UFT, and representatives of the community our schools serve. All staff hiring is done by a school based committee, the majority of whom are teachers from the school. School based committees of teachers make important academic and curricular decisions.

Teachers understand the desirability of the alternative educational world the UFT is building in its charter schools: we advertised twelve positions starting September 2006 in our the UFT Secondary Charter School this spring, and were inundated with over 1100 applications.

And in the political netherworld where the extreme left and the right fade into each other, the UFT Charter Schools have been the political target of those who feel endangered by the emergence of such an educational alternative. Nothing is so threatening, it would seem, as schools in which empowered teachers exercise significant voice.

All the more reason to create them. Another educational world is possible.



  • 1 joe
    · Aug 5, 2006 at 8:39 am

    Could you elaborate on how your charter school are financed? How does the budget compare to a similar-sized DOE-run school? The UFT is making an effective demonstration that its work rules aren’t the cause of NYC’s troubled schools, but it does seem like you might be spending much more per student to both comply with the work rules and provide a rich and comprehensive environment for both students and teachers.

    If you are having the success you tout, please share how it’s accomplished financially, so that other schools, both in NYC and elsewhere, can see how to allocate their money for maximum results.

  • 2 Leo Casey
    · Aug 5, 2006 at 10:17 am

    In New York State, charter schools are financed at 90% of what public district schools have. The UFT has committed itself to raising the difference, so that our school has the some financing as a NYC public district school. So consider our charter school to be a school that has the same income as the DOE would receive for a school for our size, but spends its money very differently.

    [We have commited ourselves to limiting the budget to the same amount of financing as a public district school, in order to make the point about how one uses money. When the CFE money finally comes through, for example, we would lower our class sizes further, below the current 25 per class at the secondary school. Klein and Bloomberg have stated rather different priorities for these funds.]

    An additional issue for some charter schools is the start up costs of facilities. In New York City, however, this is mitigated by the fact that the DOE is providing space in NYC public schools to charter schools. There are all sorts of problems that have come with this arrangement, given the nature of the DOE — but it is still a major equalizer.

  • 3 NYC Educator
    · Aug 6, 2006 at 9:20 am

    Not only is the DoE providing space for charter schools, but they’re treating them far better than public schools. It’s very hard for me to understand this process.

    My school is at 250% capacity, and billionaire Courtney Ross gets to reject sites for her charter. She then gets a plum of a site fixed up by NYC parents, with hundreds of thousands of their own dollars. The parents are branded racists for the crime of trying to preserve the school they helped create.

    Then Ross gets a state-of-the-art facility at Tweed.

    Meanwhile, my kids trudge through the rain and snow to trailers behind our bursting-at-the-seams building.

    Charters must not receive preferential treatment. Let Mayor Mike either find space for all kids, mine included, or cram his billionaire buddies’ pet projects in with everyone else.

  • 4 curious3
    · Aug 6, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Hey Leo,

    I hope the UFT charter schools are tremendously successful. Why not support raising the charter cap (without any changes to the law otherwise) so that you can start more UFT charter schools? If you treat teachers better, why are you concerned with the competition from non-union charter schools? Won’t the best teachers naturally gravitate towards your schools?


  • 5 Leo Casey
    · Aug 7, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    Surely someone who comments as often as you do, Ken, has read one of the many, many posts we have published on Edwize on the subject of the charter cap. Randi and the UFT have gone the extra mile, and then some, to indicate our willingness to increase the cap — provided that is accompanied by protection of the labor and other rights of teachers in charter schools. That would ensure that we don’t have happen to good charter school teachers what happened to Nichole Byrne Lau and her colleagues, and guarantee that teachers in charter schools have the ability to decide for themselves, without intimidation and harassment, if they want to have a union and bargain collectively. It seems that charter school advocates in NY State have decided that the cap isn’t really that important after all, or not important enough to give teachers rights, because no one has taken us up on the public offer.

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