As the United Federation of Teachers heads toward our fiftieth anniversary in 2010, we find ourselves facing a challenge greater than any we confronted in the last half-century of our history. Our union has been tempered by many extraordinary struggles over these last five decades, but never have we seen what we are witnessing today: a direct assault on the public character of American education and on the very right of teachers to organize collectively in unions. While the UFT has withstood these attacks as well as any teacher union in the nation, it would be a serious mistake to look at developments in New Orleans and Washington DC and proclaim “it can not happen here.” If we fail to grasp the critical nature of this moment and mount an appropriate, vigorous response, it can and will happen here.
At the center of this challenge is the charter school movement. In their original conception, charter schools were to be innovative public schools, freed from the stifling bureaucracy of school districts, professionally led and directed by their teachers and organically connected to communities they served. Charter schools would be laboratories of educational experimentation, expanding our repertoire of best educational practices. This was the vision put forward by the late UFT and AFT President Al Shanker, when he became one of the very first advocates for charter schools, and it is the vision we relied upon when we started our own UFT Charter School in East New York and partnered with Green Dot to establish a charter school in the South Bronx.
Over the nearly two decades since Minnesota enacted the first state charter law, charter schools have become an increasingly important and permanent fixture of American education. But for too long, teacher unions and progressive educators paid far too little attention to charter schools, incorrectly seeing them as marginal developments. Right wing ideologues moved into the vacuum created by this inattention, and seized a very significant beachhead inside the charter school movement; from this salient, they have pushed a notion of a charter school at direct odds with Shanker’s original conception. In their world view, charter schools are a wedge to pursue the privatization of public schools and to create schools in which unions are eliminated. In this vision, charters are private schools, supported with public funds.
In New York and nationally, the leadership of the charter school movement is today dominated by outspoken partisans of this right wing agenda. Key figures in the New York Charter School Association opposed the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit to bring fairness to the funding of public schools that serve communities with high rates of poverty and high concentration of need. They brought the notoriously anti-union Jackson, Lewis law firm and its “union avoidance” campaigns to the charter school movement in New York, and they regularly take to the pages of the tabloid press to attack the UFT. The CEO of the NYC Charter School Center, a partnership between the city and leading financial backers, worked on charter schools for the anti-union Wal-Mart Walton Family Foundation before he took up his current position. Anti-union figures like the infamous corporate raider Carl Icahn, who has sponsored a number of charter schools in the South Bronx, play a prominent role in this leadership.
These forces on the right understand that K-12 public education is the one sector of the American economy that is largely organized in unions, and that teacher unions are an increasingly crucial and central component of an American labor movement that is fighting to reverse its decline in recent years, as once powerful industrial unions have been decimated by globalization. They see the pivotal role that teacher unions play in the election of progressive elected officials and in the support of progressive reforms, from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to the current battle to establish universal health insurance. They want to break our power, and they would use their base within the charter school movement to establish an alternative system of non-union, publicly funded schools to accomplish that end.
In New York City, these forces have pursued a strategy of concentrating charter schools in three communities – Harlem, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn. Wal-Mart specifically targets its support for NYC charter schools to those which are based in Harlem, and today that community has the second largest concentration of charter schools in the United States, surpassed only by New Orleans. The strategy is to replace unionized district public schools with non-union charter schools in these communities, until a tipping point is reached in which a charter district has been created.
While the right wing has seized key positions in the leadership of the charter school movement, it does not represent all charter schools. There is a vital progressive wing of the charter school movement, represented by organizations like Green Dot Charter Schools, teacher led cooperatives and a growing number of unionized charter schools. These schools fulfill the original promise of charter schools as powerful educational communities with real parent and teacher voice. In New York City, there are a number of unionized charter schools which embody this same vision.
A crucial battle now looms with the right wing forces within the charter school movement. At issue is not the existence of charter schools, but their character. Will charter schools be public schools in the fullest meaning of the term, educating all students, especially those with the greatest need? Will they be transparent and publicly accountable? Will they innovate, and share their knowledge with other public schools? Will they recognize parent voice and teacher voice, including the right of teachers to organize into a union? Will they supplement and enhance – not seek to replace – district public schools?
Or will all that is truly public about charter schools be their source of funding, as private interests and for profit corporations usurp public money for their own political purposes? Will at risk and high needs students be sent away from charter school doors, and left to other schools to educate? Will charters seek exemption from public, governmental oversight, and try to hide important financial expenditures? Will they do their best to thwart parents and teachers seeking a full voice in their schools, and deny teachers the right to organize a union?
Those who argue that charter schools must be always and everywhere opposed ill serve us in this pivotal struggle. They fail to understand the full dimensions of the challenge we now face, and how deeply charters have taken root in American education. When they proclaim that all charter schools are an embodiment of the right wing agenda, they surrender without firing so much as a single shot in the crucial battle over the character of charter schools. Their dogmatism would blindly set teacher unions against charter teachers at the very moment that those teachers would be reaching out to unions for our advocacy and our organizational know-how.
The future of American public education and of American teacher unions will depend, in large measure, upon how we respond to the charter challenge. Our task is to defend the public character of all schools, and to organize the unorganized charter school teaching force.