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The Charter Challenge

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.



  • 1 Dora Taylor
    · Nov 25, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Many of us in Seattle agree with you 100%.

    See our blog.


  • 2 Dora Taylor
    · Nov 25, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Many of us in Seattle agree with you 100%.

    Google “Seattle Education 2010″ and checkout what we are thinking about in our state.

  • 3 Anthony Wansor
    · Nov 25, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Today, the nation’s preeminent charter school organization, Green Dot Public Schools, and its largest teacher union local, the United Federation of Teachers, signed an innovative and pioneering collective bargaining agreement for Green Dot’s New York City charter school. The contract was approved by the Board of Trustees of the Green Dot school on Monday, and was ratified by the UFT Chapter today.

    The 29 page agreement breaks vital new ground, and not simply because it brings together leading forces in the ranks of the charter school movement and teacher unionism. Just as importantly, the contract embodies a new model of labor relations in education, based on a disarmingly simple proposition: that a school which respects, nurtures and supports teacher professionalism in all of its work will provide the best education for students. More »

  • 4 Leo Casey
    · Nov 26, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    I sure did write it Anthony, and it is every bit as true today as it was when I wrote it. You seem to have missed the part of the analysis where I talked about the progressive sector of the charter school movement, specifically mentioning Green Dot.

  • 5 Anthony Wansor
    · Nov 27, 2009 at 9:09 am

    I did not miss the part where teachers lost tenure in the agreement Leo.

  • 6 Robert D. Skeels
    · Nov 28, 2009 at 11:14 am

    I feel it’s a grave mistake to consider Green Dot progressive in any fashion. Green Dot takes Walton Foundation grants like the other CMOs listed above. Additionally, Green Dot take money from a whole range of right wing ideologues including the Broads, Gates, and Milkens. Marco Petruzzi, Green Dot’s CEO, former Wall Street position consisted of being: “a partner at Bain Capital, one of the largest private equity firms, and former home of failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Private equity firms like Bain take over public entities, strip them of resources while loading them up with debt that is used to pay themselves obscene fees, and then sell them off” according to Michael Fiorillo.

    Marco Petruzzi and Steve Barr’s Green Dot corporate charter-voucher establishment in Los Angeles, like all EMO/CMO factory schools, have been a paradigm of parent disenfranchisement. The recent definitive studies proving charter school racism (bit.ly/8RRuaZ) and CMO discrimination and exclusivity toward children with special needs (bit.ly/5LHf2j) are further proof that the decades long failed experiment of the corporate CMO supporters must end. The previous two studies don’t address Green Dot’s LAPU/PR division, tasked with increasing market share, which have been documented in at least two articles (bit.ly/4e78Sm), (bit.ly/5Dndws) as class and race baiting.

    Green Dot spends 1.2 million on outsourced, non-union security at Locke, already resulting in incidents including pepper spraying students, but spends precious little on student achievement. Despite all the sycophantic media hype, Green Dot Public [sic] Schools underperform most of LAUSD in many regards. Green Dot sports three schools in the lowest 100 APIs in the County. They also feature five schools in the lowest 35 average SAT scores in the County (projects.latimes.com/schools/). Let’s look at Animo Venice Charter High School, which isn’t one of the schools just mentioned. Of the Green Dot students admitted to the CSU system in 2008 67% WERE NOT PROFICIENT IN MATHEMATICS. This is compared to just 49% of the much maligned LAUSD students. Moreover, only 33% of the children graduating the Green Dot corporate factory school were proficient, while children attending public schools comprised a much more respectable 51% (www.asd.calstate.edu/scripts/hsrem08/hsrem08.idc?campus=199683).

    Green Dot’s yellow, or company union, AMU is nothing to praise either despite CTA certification. AMU doesn’t even have its own office or website, all of its activities stem from Green Dot’s corporate headquarters. This explains a dearth of activism from AMU’s members in the midst of the worst budget cuts imaginable. This company unionism also explains why Green Dot teachers’ average experience, while marginally higher than the CMO average of 2 years, is still less than 3 years. This in turn probably explains Green Dot’s dismal performance discussed above, despite all the advantages it holds in extra funding, motivated parents, and exclusion of ELL and special education children.

    I could go on and on about Green Dot, but I think I’ve made the point clear. If Green Dot represents what this article terms “a vital progressive wing” of the EMO/CMO corporate charter-voucher establishment, then we are in serious trouble. While there was a historical point that some charters were somewhat progressive, your quote “Right wing ideologues moved into the vacuum” holds true for the vast majority of EMO/CMOs. At this point, instead of supporting a tiny minority of what might remain progressive institutions, we should be counterposing fully funded traditional public schools!

  • 7 jd2718
    · Nov 28, 2009 at 3:01 pm


    besides not being hostile to the UFT (and yes, I understand that that alone IS significant) what else would lead you to label Green Dot as “progressive”?

    From the website, from what you’ve written, from talking to a teacher, I don’t see it. Data. Focus on scores. Ability to exclude problem students. Longer work day. Discipline.

    What’s the difference between GDNY and KIPP, besides the UFT involvement?

    Anything special in the arrangement of the day? Anything special in the arrangement of the courses? Anything special in terms of curriculum itself?

  • 8 Anthony Wansor
    · Nov 28, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    The attack on tenure is hostile.

  • 9 bronxactivist
    · Nov 29, 2009 at 9:36 am

    If the mayor would have studied his history he would understand that tenure is part of the civil service procedure established to keep politicians from handing out city jobs in exchange for bribes or favors. Tenure allows teachers to be objective and not get involved in politics but focus on the education of students. I guess the mayor wants the old system of: “to the victor goes the spoils.” That means him and his cronies can manipulate the schools as they please.
    Principals try to manipulate our members but tenure prevents them from getting rid of the teachers they do not like. Do principals put in those people that are “associated” to them through networking? Yes they do so imagine if the mayor has his way of removing tenure and allowing private companies to run the school system. What have private companies done with the banks, wall street and corporate america in general. They want profits at all cost and forget that they are delivering services that impact human life.
    Our children deserve better then politics they deserve better than to have their teachers fired at will.
    The Mayor and Chancellor can make the system better by simply allowing parents to be involved and encouraging their input across the system. Many times the mayor forgets the schools are “public” because the community has an obligation to educate their youth.
    The new school governace law is suppoused to allow transparency in the budget process and increase parent input yet this has not occured. With the money spent on no bid contracts we can offer the children and parents Wrap around services including mental health services.
    Do not forget that politics do not belong in the classroom. Politics do not belong in education because the purpose of public schools is to graduate civic minded individuals that will impact society in a positive manner.
    Test prep is not critical thinking it is not problem solving it is simply test taking. What about the fact that many of our students are emotionally delicate and fragile. How will this impact our society? Will the politicians care? Are they just looking for the next fad to provide quick fixes? Are they manipulating the system to pay off those that have had a vested commercial interest in education?

  • 10 Leo Casey
    · Dec 1, 2009 at 10:43 am


    If we are going to have a full discussion about tenure, it is important to understand that it is primarily outlined in state education law [section 3020a] where it existed prior to collective bargaining and only secondarily outlined in the collective bargaining agreement with the DoE. NYS Charter Law exempts charter schools from the tenure provisions of state education law. Consequently, when we started our own UFT charter schools, we had to create our system of tenure, parallel to the process in state law, in order to provide it to the staff there. The Green Dot NY school was in an analogous situation, and it created a system of due process which was, in our view, even better than that enjoyed under state law and the collective bargaining agreement. While probationary teachers have minimal due process protections, the Green Dot contract provides full due process protections from day one. It employs a just cause standard for discipline and dismissal, which is the standard employed under the tenure protections of NYS Education Law, and it has an appeals process before impartial arbitrators, as in the 3020a procedures under that law. It is important not to ossify and fetishize the word ‘tenure,’ while ignoring its substance.


    I think my posting at Edwize after the Green Dot contract was adopted outlined in some detail all of its features which are quite progressive. Not only the due process procedures outlined above, which include a system of professional mediation. There is the institutionalization of teacher voice with majority teacher school led committees: the stipend committee which determine what we would call in the DOE the entire comp time and per session allocations of the school; the calendar and programming committee which oversees the school calendar and programs; and school leadership and professional development committees. There is a professional system of evaluation based on the standards of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. There is a 14% pay premium over the DoE, and staff receive the same pension and health care benefits as DoE teachers do.


    I have to be quite honest here. Although I obviously do not know the LA educational scene as well as I do the NY, I have to say that the picture you attempt to paint bears no resemblance to what I do know, or to the Green Dot people we know who negotiated the contract with us. The evidence available in the public realm simply does not support the claim that Green Dot schools are doing more poorly. Moreover, it is to their credit that unlike CMOs in NY, they take on the difficult high school years. Finally, when I see accusations of racism loosely used without any supporting evidence, I fear that they are a cover for the lack of a real argument.


  • 11 Anthony
    · Dec 1, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I have got a simple idea for you Leo.

    Let the membership speak to whether they want the so-called protections under the Green Dot Contract or keep the protection they currently have now.

    Even better, ask the principals which contract they would prefer to work under.

    Seriously Leo, I doubt any of the wonks at the UFT offices these days even know what the rank and file think anymore. Perhaps if went back to electing our District Representatives instead of them be selected by the union leadership they would know how we think and feel.

    Last word for you Leo because I do not think I can stomach much more of the nonsense coming out of your blog.

  • 12 Leo Casey
    · Dec 1, 2009 at 3:39 pm


    Since the UFT is a democratic union, all of the members we represent have the right to ratify or vote down the contract they work under. The Green Dot NY teachers overwhelmingly ratified the contract governing their school. I don’t think they share your views — or your stomach pains.

  • 13 Robert D. Skeels
    · Dec 1, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    “Finally, when I see accusations of racism loosely used without any supporting evidence…”

    Given that I provided links to four different sources, one a published UCLA study, another a court appointed modified consent decree report, I’m not sure how these very real concerns are lacking evidence. Did you read the bit.ly links I provided, particularly the first two? The evidence I provided from the Los Angeles Times and CSU system don’t count as evidence in the public realm? I’d understand if I had made broad generalizations, but I provided precise, documented statistics. I can provide a great deal more, and al l of them in line with the Stanford CREDO, and University of Arizona findings.

    Not to discount your own experience with Green Dot, but you are the first person outside of the Broad Foundation or the LA Times Editorial staff I’ve ever heard say anything positive about them. Maybe they were putting on a good face to get their foot in the door in New York. Here in Los Angeles, pariah would be too kind a term to describe both public and union sentiment towards Barr’s empire.

  • 14 Anthony Wansor
    · Dec 1, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    I changed my mind Leo. I think I will say something more.

    As to whether the employees at Green Dot will share my views or not…we’ll see Leo.

    In a year, maybe even less, you will most likely be eating crow on that one as well.

  • 15 Anthony Wansor
    · Dec 1, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    And then we shall see who needs the antacids more.

  • 16 nik25
    · Dec 3, 2009 at 9:57 am

    As a graduate student preparing and planning to teach in NYC, I have studied the charter school/traditional public school debate. I have read a great deal on the subject, including blogs like these. The issues that seem to come up the most are how charters do not support teacher unions, how charters are biased and take resources away, and the conflicting findings regarding student progress and performance. These concerns are indeed valid. There have been many negative situations in which we see the charter schools not supporting unions, taking resources and may be being biased. In addition, we have all heard about controversial reports from educational writer Linda Renzulli, and more recently, the Hoxby report. However, there have been positives strides, as well.
    For instance, Green Dot has signed an agreement with the UFT and in Chicago, teachers of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff ratified their first contract recently. While there may be a long way to go for other teachers of charters, these serve as examples of things going in the right direction. While I do support charters and what they stand for ideologically, I also believe teachers, like any other workers, do need protection. Not feeling secure at one’s place of employment can have negative effects, and these are negative effects that can directly or indirectly hurt our children and their education.
    Secondly, as I have studied, there have been numerous incidents in which charter schools sharing space has caused conflict with the neighboring school and the community. Students who have to share space may not have full access to the school’s resources and overcrowding can be an issue as well. Charter schools aim to solve these issues, but people argue that this will only further the disintegration and extinction of traditional public schools. However, I feel that the public benefits from both types of schools. Each has a purpose and a place, and I am sure that most parents appreciate having several schools to choose from within their community. But the issue is not that the charter school is 100 percent responsible for taking resources away. The problem is that not enough money or attention is given to traditional public schools. If both types of institutions were funded equally and securely, would we really be having so many issues over space and resources? Just because the charters are “newer” doesn’t mean they are better. As long as a school is open and is serving kids, then attention is needed. However, this is where the controversies of testing come into play. Why is it that there are no reports that are deemed reliable after all this time? I suppose there are just too many differing factors; the fact that charters are smaller and have newer resources, and both types of schools have differences in classes, testing, and to an extent, parental involvement.
    Finally, one of the most prominent arguments made against charter sis that they are biased. According to Renzulli, charters encourage segregation as opposed to integration. Also, authors Hursh and Lipman who wrote about he Ren10 in Chicago, feel the building of charters encourages gentrification. This may be true, because their writing had to do investors, markets and neoliberalism. However, what wasn’t taken into account was that charters open their doors to students some schools do not want to take, such as special needs students and ELL students. These students, whose option to get a high quality education was believed to only be at a private school, can achieve success for a far greater cost a charter schools aimed at specifically helping them and their specific needs. For instance, the Goldberg Opportunity Charter School in NYC. In addition, in the case of the soon to open Frank McCourt Charter School in Manhattan’s upper West side, the parents may be the one’s causing a bias. Because the families in the community fought so hard for the school to be built, they want their community (District 13) to be given priority when it comes to admissions. This is understandable, since it is their neighborhood and they did fight for the school. However, if the school isn’t open to all of NYC’s students, then is that fair? In addition, wouldn’t that also create a homogenous environment? Schools should take community into account, because it may be the most convenient choice for the parent and also because communities want to empower themselves to provide that positive environment. However, when priorities are being handed out, that is when the controversies begin again.
    I close by saying that it is a shame that there are so many tensions and arguments concerning charters and traditional public schools. However, that is reality. However, the other reality is that as long as both schools exist, there needs to be more cooperation. Creating more tensions is only going to hurt the quality of the education in the long run, as people will become jaded. There needs to be more community awareness and parental and student involvement. If the community has more of an involvement, I believe that at least some of the present problems can be eased. We must care for the education of all of our children, at all types of schools. It is only fair to them.

  • 17 Anthony Wansor
    · Dec 4, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    Nik25. Do me a favor. Give me a lecture on what is fair after you have spent ten years in some of the toughest schools schools on the face of the earth.

  • 18 Jack Israel
    · Dec 5, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    I have to say I firmly agree with Anthony Wansor assertion that District Reps should be elected not appointed. Why wouldn’t that be a good idea Leo?

    Do we have an action plan on how to save the large schools that are being screwed by the grading policy??????

  • 19 nik25
    · Dec 5, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Do me a favor, learn what a lecture is, because that certainly wasn’t one-it was me just posting some thoughts. Anyway, don’t bother to try to come up with some clever response, because I won’t be reading it.

  • 20 John Doe
    · Dec 6, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    The recent definitive studies proving charter school racism (bit.ly/8RRuaZ)

    Bull. That wasn’t a “study” at all, just a “report” from diehard charter opponents. What’s more, they provide absolutely no evidence of racism in charter schools; they merely insinuate, on the basis of next to nothing, that charter schools are segregative because they serve so many black kids.

    Next up from the stupid brigade: food stamps are racist, because so many black people use them.