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New York Charter School Association, Completely Bought and Paid For

Long time readers of Edwize may recall that on a number of different occasions, we have written about how the UFT and Randi Weingarten have reached out, in public and in private, to the charter school community in New York. [The discussion is summarized here.] We offered to support an increase in the cap of charter schools for New York City, provided that it was accompanied by labor rights for teachers working in charter schools, so that they could freely choose to be represented by a union. We even suggested ways in which charter school issues such as full funding could be addressed.

If lifting the cap was truly the objective of charter school advocates, here was a path for how it could be achieved — and it was a path laid out in public, so there would be no turning back. All that we required in return was that teachers in charter schools have the ability to exercise the right guaranteed in the first article of the New York State Constitution — to organize into a union and bargain collectively. Here in New York City, we have seen charter school teachers fired for discussing such matters as salary and missing pension contributions, and we have seen charter schools where an entire faculty had signed up to join the UFT one Spring, only to be “union cleansed” the following Fall. That is not acceptable in a state that proclaims the inviolability of labor rights in its Constitution, much less in a free and democratic society.

Our offer had the virtue of putting the question into a form where the response of charter school advocates would make it clear what their true objective is — the lifting of the cap on charter schools, or the power to run non-union schools, supported with public money, where teachers work “at will” and can be fired on the whim of The Man in charge.

Many of us on the teacher union side hoped against hope that New York charter school advocates were men and women of their public word, but we have been sorely disappointed by those who control NYCSA. These days it is not possible to read the puerile, tabloid prose of the New York Charter School Association blog, The Chalkboard, without being hit over the head by the message that their prime objective is charter schools where management exercises absolute power over teachers, that labor rights must be avoided at all costs. Lifting the charter school cap clearly comes in second, a goal only worth achieving if it can be done on NYCSA’s terms — schools where teachers have no labor rights.

The story here, like that in all too much of American public life, is one of the corrupting power of money and the undue influence of those with large amounts of it. Three significant, rather flush entities of the anti-union, far right wing — the Walton Family Foundation of Wal-Mart fame, a network of foundations and corporations connected to the corporate raider and junk bond dealer Carl Icahn, and a network of foundations and corporations connected to ultra-conservative Richard Gilder — give massive amounts of money to NYCSA, to allied organizations and to their political campaigns. [Closely connected to Gilder in his charter school advocacy and political work is the Hickory Foundation of Virginia Manheimer, Gilder's former wife.]

Between 2000 and 2004, the Walton Family foundation and the Gilder Foundation gave over $900,000 to NYCSA. Over the same period of time, the two foundations gave over $1.5 million to the New York Charter School Resource Center, an organization that has shared the same address and a number of the same principals [most prominently, Gerardo Vasquez and Peter Murphy, a particularly venomous foe of teacher voice and teacher unions] as NYCSA. Walton and Gilder also give large sums of money to other foundations, such as the Robin Hood Foundation, which in turns funded charter school activities in New York and elsewhere. Icahn sponsors his own charter school in New York, and funds it and campaigns of New York charter school advocates.

According to tax returns and corporate filings, NYCSA shares a single address [Four Chelsea Place in Clifton, NY] not only with the Charter Resource Center, but also with the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability [FERA], the Brighter Choice Foundation, and the School Choice Scholarships Foundation.

FERA is the successor to the ultra-conservative Empire Foundation and is part of the right-wing State Policy Network, a coordinating body of anti-union right wing state foundations. It was an affiliate of CHANGE-NY, a now defunct anti-tax, hard right wing umbrella group in New York. FERA’s 2004 tax return includes a $200,000 contribution from the Gilder Foundation [Richard Gilder and Virginia Manheimer sit on the FERA board] and a $170,000 contribution from the Charter Resource Center. FERA President Thomas Carroll, often in the news with attacks on teacher unions and on labor rights for teachers in charter schools, is also the founder and chairman of the Brighter Choice Charter Schools. Caroll and Gilder sit together on the board of School Choice Scholarships Foundation.

And there’s more. Roger Hertog, publisher and financier of the New York Sun, also sits on the board of School Choice Scholarships Foundation. [Now you know why Carroll's byline appears regularly in the Sun, and why the Sun editorialized that the UFT's two charter schools should be closed down, simply because we wouldn't agree to an increase in the charter cap without accompanying labor rights -- so much for caring about creating good schools for kids.] Hertog, Manheimer and Brian Backstrom [Charter School Resource Center Treasurer, FERA Vice-President and Brighter Choice Foundation Vice-President] all join Gilder in the Club for Growth, a national anti-union policy organization dedicated to laissez-faire economic principles.

He who pays the piper calls the tunes, and the anti-union troika of Walton-Gilder-Icahn has NYCSA and its allied organizations doing their bidding. NYCSA is completely bought and paid for. The anti-union, right wing economic agenda comes first, and charter schools and the students their serve come in a poor second.

It was this anti-union agenda that led NYCSA to play a central role in facilitating the introduction of the notorious union-busting law firm, Jackson, Lewis and its Atlantic Legal Foundation, to New York charter schools. In the past, Edwize wrote extensively about an Atlantic Legal Foundation conference specifically organized for New York Charter Schools on the subject of union busting; in addition to helping facilitate this conference, NYCSA has had the Atlantic Legal Foundation sponsor workshops at its annual conference.

Desperate to make a case — any case — against labor rights for charter school teachers, Chalkboard, the NYCSA blog, has now twice referred to events in Broward County, Florida. In fact, the events in Broward prove exactly the opposite of what the Chalkboard claims. The local teachers’ union signed up a majority of the teachers at the seven Pembroke Pines Charter Schools, only to have the County Commissioners renege on an agreement to recognize the union as the collective bargaining agent once a majority of teachers signed authorization cards. The ostensible reason? The wording on the card was “ambiguous,” so teachers did not understand what they were signing. Once the teachers were signed up, a full court pressure campaign was launched to stop union recognition, and a couple of teachers were pressured into endorsing this claim.

There’s only one problem with this scenario: teacher unions don’t get to put any old deceptive wording on an authorization card — this is an area of labor law which is tightly regulated by the government, precisely so there is no question about the intentions of the individuals who sign them. And because the signers were teachers, we are talking about individuals who have, at a minimum, a four year college degree. To believe the story of teachers being misled told by the Chalkboard and the usual anti-union forces [Michael Antonucci of EIA and the State Policy Network, to which FERA is affiliated], you would have to start from the premise that college graduate charter school teachers are unable to comprehend the most straightforward and simple written English.

What we have in the Pembroke Pines Charter Schools is precisely the problem that has led American workers to increasingly turn to ‘card check recognition’ in union organizing drives. Rather than recognize unions once workers have indicated their desire to have one, anti-union employers engage in long, drawn out campaigns to destroy the union that go on for years, with the introduction of professional union busting operations that refuse to negotiate contracts, that harass and fire union leaders, that tie up union victories in elections with court challenges, and that use intimidation and pressure to coerce individual employees to withdraw their support for their unions. The New York Times article “Who Drove Out A Union? South Carolina Factory Provides a Textbook Case.” [$] fully documented one particular vicious iteration of this sort of campaign by the very law firm that NYCSA brought into New York, Jackson, Lewis. Immediate recognition of the union in the Pembroke Pines Charter Schools would have made that sort of campaign impossible.

Being from New York, it is hard not to think of the old folk definition of chutzpah when reading The Chalkboard these days. Chutzpah, the saying goes, is exemplified by the defendant who kills his parents, and then begs the court’s mercy because he is an orphan. If any blog fits that definition, it has to be NYCSA’s Chalkboard. NYCSA puts itself in the pay of Walton, Icahn and Gilder, brings in notorious union busters like Jackson, Lewis and the Atlantic Legal Foundation, and then calls NYSUT a gorilla and a thug. They spurned the UFT’s offer to fashion a compromise that would help charter schools, because they were intent upon forcing legislation that would continue to deny charter school teachers labor rights. Now that they have been turned back at that effort, not once but twice, the playground bullies with the bloody noses are telling everyone how they were victimized. Their tale evokes as much sympathy as Donald Rumsfeld’s forced retirement from public life.

But there are real losers in this story — charter schools that understand their mission as serving needy kids, and that want to attract and retain the best teachers to that end. They are being terribly ill-served by a NYCSA that places an anti-union agenda of its funders and of dogmatic ultra-right ideologues like Carroll and Murphy above the needs of their students, their teachers and their schools. How long can they continue to let a NYCSA which is bought and paid for speak in their name?

I am indebted to the AFT’s Ed Muir for much of the research cited in this piece.

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9 Comments:

  • 1 jd2718
    · Dec 17, 2006 at 7:26 pm

    Rather than be shocked or angered by NYCSA, or wondering how charter schools let themselves become attached to such an anti-union association, maybe we should return to the question of the Charter Movement as a whole.

    This movement as a whole is anti-union and anti-public education. We should say that.

    Charter schools walk the fuzzy line between public and private, to confuse people, and to divert public funding. We should say that too. (empowerment plays a similar other game, from a different direction).

    Charter schools teachers are, for the most part, unorganized. We should say that. We should attack the problem. We should organize these schools. And we should help them win better pay and conditions.

    And we should advocate against expanding this anti-union enterprise (ie, no playing footsie with the charter cap; we should oppose raising it. “Forthright” is worth something). And we should advocate returning charter schools to the unambiguous sphere of public education.

    Jonathan

  • 2 dbellel
    · Dec 17, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    add whitney tilson to the charter school blogger shills

    check out this cheap shot on Kathleen Cashin

    http://edreform.blogspot.com/2006/12/comments-on-how-to-reform-district.html

    Media attack on Klein/Bloomberg!
    they’ve gotten a free ride for years

  • 3 NCLB: Let's Get it Right!
    · Dec 18, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    Something Wicked Dwells….In Clifton?…

    Leo Casey at Edwize has a post up this morning about the conflict over charter school expansion in New York state.  He cites some of my work (and has added some wrinkles himself).  I’ve already documented the New York Charter……

  • 4 institutional memory
    · Dec 18, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    I agree with Jonathan (comment above) that we should reconsider the entire existence of the charter school movement.

    The following has been stated before in this space, but needs to be reiterated in the context of this discussion:

    Under NCLB, every single public school in the country that has even one student in Performance Level 1 or 2 (e.g., below the “proficient” cutoff) will be subject to closing by the year 2018. All of their funding – state and federal – will be diverted to private and charter schools. This is no paranoid rant … it’s in the law.

    Why? It’s because under the current assessment method – norm-referenced tests – there will always be a certain percentage of students below the cutoff. It’s the way the tests are designed.

    Charter schools are well-positioned to benefit from NCLB’s absurdly punitive wording.

    This is yet another of the Bush administration’s plethora of scams. I sincerely hope the American public wakes up before it’s too late.

  • 5 Leo Casey
    · Dec 19, 2006 at 9:53 am

    Jonathan and Institutional Memory:

    We disagree on the approach to charter schools. I would argue that what you suggest is to leave the field of battle, giving charter schools over to the right wing. From where I sit, that would be a serious political and strategic error. Educational progressives and teacher unionists were asleep at the wheel while the right wing gained a rather significant beachhead among charter schools; to turn away from a battle over the heart and soul of an important part of public education would only compound that error, and make it possible for them to expand an anti-union, reactionary presence within our sector.

  • 6 institutional memory
    · Dec 19, 2006 at 11:51 am

    Leo,

    You have made an error; I don’t advocate leaving the field of battle over charter schools. What I advocate is to oppose their existence at every turn.

    Charter schools effectively reduce the pool of funding available to public schools; “cherry-pick” their student populations; take unfair advantage of their teachers’ youth and enthusiasm; and (with the exception, of course, of the two that are run by the UFT) provide a fertile ground for anti-union proselytizers.

    If the UFT hadn’t entered into the charter school fray by opening their own schools, I doubt that any pro-charter school opinions would be found here. That would be a good thing.

  • 7 Leo Casey
    · Dec 20, 2006 at 9:58 am

    Jonathan:

    What distinguishes charter schools from other public schools is their form of governance — they are outside the district administrative structure and hierarchy. The question that needs to be asked is whether there is anything intrinsic in that system of governance that leads to the creation of schools dominated by the anti-union, anti-public education far right. I would argue there is nothing.

    The independence of charter schools has creates opportunities to create schools outside the mold of district schools, but unless you think that the anti-union far right is the only political entity capable of exploiting opportunities, it does not follow that this is necessarily an avenue of anti-union, anti-public education far right. Indeed, I think we need to be brutally honest with ourselves and admit that if it has been the right wing which has exploited the opportunities posed by charter schools far more often than not, a great deal of the responsibility for that lies with progressive educators for leaving the field open to them.

    Why shouldn’t progressive educators be setting up charter schools that are excellent public schools, serving students who are otherwise being served, by taking advantage of the freedom from administrative bureaucracy? Isn’t this what Shanker advocated when he first proposed the idea of charter schools? Since when have progressive educators and teacher unions become defenders of district bureaucratic governance?

    Saying that our objective is to eliminate charter schools is to leave the field of charter schools completely open to the right wing. It is leaving a crucial field of battle with the promise that it is irrelevent. Moreover, it gives the operators of charter schools great propaganda when charter school teachers try to organize themselves into unions — “you are consorting with the enemy,” they will say.

    But with the UFT establishing its own charter schools, and working with progressive charter schools — and even if they are a minority, there are far more than you give credit for — it is not possible to accuse us of being opposed to charter schools. It is now clear that what we are opposed to are charter schools where teachers are denied voice and the opportunity to organize and bargain collectively.

  • 8 jd2718
    · Dec 23, 2006 at 1:34 pm

    The concept “charter school” should not be divorced from the actual charter school movement that currently exists. What charter schools could be is irrelevant. What the current movement is: anti-union, anti-public educatin, that is of major concern.

    I had a strange discussion recently about “States Rights.” It was very much the same debate. I don’t give a damn about the theoretical implications of the argument. There is a movement, or a trend, or an undercurrent assoicated with States Rights, and it is that (vile) movement which leads me to form my opinion, not some theoretical discussion.

    Likewise, the charter school movement is populated by those who would do us harm. There is no shame in forthrightly opposing them.

    Jonathan

  • 9 On Charter Schools, Part 3: Criticisms of Charter Schools » Edurati Review
    · Feb 12, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    [...] as a general rule seem to see union organizing as an obstruction to school reform. The internet has multiple references to the cleansing of unionizing schools and unfair labor practices when it comes to the [...]