By Larry Sand
LOS ANGELES – Last week, Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, announced his intention to push for legislation that would force charter school teachers in the nation’s capital to become unionized.
(Charter schools are public schools that can bypass certain rules and regulations — including union contacts — if they can produce certain prespecified results.) As things stand now in D.C., unlike their traditional public school brethren, charter school teachers don’t have to join the union. But according to Saunders,
his members are concerned they will lose their union-negotiated contracts when DCPS closes some of its campuses next fall and teachers look to charter schools for jobs. The school system recommended Tuesday that 20 schools close at least temporarily and consolidate with other traditional neighborhood schools.
The 20 schools that are closing are doing so because they are bad enough for parents to want to send their kids elsewhere…like to charter schools. Therein lies the problem for Mr. Saunders: 41 percent of kids in D.C. presently attend these innovative schools and fewer unionized teachers mean less money and power for the American Federation of Teachers local. Clearly, Saunders needs the legislation to force charter school teachers to join his union because he knows that most of them don’t want to. (Nationally, only about 12 percent of charter school teachers belong to a union.)
In fact, the main reason teachers go to work in charter schools is that they like the freedom that these schools offer… including freedom from top-down restrictive union contracts that dictate a teacher’s every move. (D.C. teachers are lucky; their contract is “only” 114 pages long. In Los Angeles, the union contract weighs in at a flatulent 349 pages.) Also, as Stanford Professor Terry Moe has pointed out, a union dominated school system often ignores the needs of children. And considering that on the latest 4th grade NAEP math test, D.C kids came in dead last in the country, maybe we need to pay more attention to them.
In this brief video put out by the California Charter School Association, we hear teachers explain why they like to teach in a less restrictive setting:
- I feel like an innovator.
- We have more freedom and can be more creative.
- We can be places that empower teachers.
- Charters are the result of people saying, “This isn’t working; we want to try something different.”
While Saunders’ motivation is obvious, his success is anything but a slam dunk. As Emma Brown in the Washington Post reported, changing the law
…would require approval from the D.C. Council and Congress, which seems politically unlikely given a Republican-led House with little interest in helping teachers unions grow and strong bipartisan support for charter schools.
“I don’t see how it could be a worse idea, and it’s not going anyplace because the Congress will never approve it,” said Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.
The freedom to employ non-unionized teachers is part of what sets the charter movement apart from the traditional school system, Cane said.
Additionally, in response to the comment by Saunders that the union is “prepared to dedicate significant resources” to changing the law, Mike Antonucci wrote,
That would be pretty scary if a) WTU had significant resources; b) charter schools didn’t have bipartisan support; and c) Republicans didn’t control the U.S. House of Representatives.
Whether he is successful or not, Saunders’ quest highlights the unfairness and un-American nature of forced unionism that exists in 27 states and D.C. Interestingly, teacher union leaders are always telling its members how much they have done for them. But have they? To that end, I have asked many union supporters in non-right to work states over the years the following question:
“If unions are so good for teachers, why must you force them to join?”
I’m still waiting for an answer.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.