Ohio Charter Teachers Fired for Organizing Will Be Reinstated

Originally published in The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on July 24, 2015.

Teachers at the Ohio-based I CAN charter network decided to organize a union during the 2013-2014 school year. Yet when the school year ended, the administration did not renew contracts for seven teachers leading the union drive—resulting in a cancellation of the scheduled union vote. While about 40 charter schools in Ohio are already unionized, those are mostly conversion schools, meaning teachers had already worked for the district before going to work for a school-district sponsored charter. These I CAN schools would have represented the first start-up charters to go union in the state.

After the firing, I CAN educators and the Ohio Federation of Teachers filed a federal complaint, which accused I CAN of making teachers feel like they were under surveillance and for pressuring employees to reveal the identities of union leaders. The complaint also alleged that I CAN increased staff salary and benefits just before the scheduled vote in order to dissuade teachers from joining a union.

One of the fired teachers, Kathryn Brown, told The Plain Dealer that she wants a union because teachers don’t feel valued. “The I CAN network believes that administration and a teaching template are all you need for education,” said Brown. “That’s the big flaw and why I got involved in unionization. A school is not just administration.”

This past October, the NLRB regional director sided with the teachers and accused I CAN of “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees.” The founders of the charter network, Marshall Emerson and Jason Stragand, denied the allegations, insisting that nobody was fired specifically for union organizing. (They pointed out that most involved in the union effort did have their contract renewed.) But Emerson and Stragand also made it clear they want to keep their schools union-free. “It would really cripple our principals and administrative staff. It could dramatically change the model. It could drastically change what we do,” said Emerson.

While the I CAN schools would have been the first Ohio start-up charters to organize, other charters in the Buckeye State have since moved ahead with their own successful campaigns. This past March teachers at the Columbus-based Franklinton Preparatory Academy voted to join a union. Since then three more charter schools in Youngstown have also voted to unionize.

As for I CAN, this week the NLRB finally reached a settlement with the charter network and imposed penalties for interference. I CAN will have to re-hire four of the fired teachers and give all seven teachers back pay. School officials will also have to post a statement in their school buildings that says they cannot interfere with union organizing efforts. However, the NLRB settlement did not include any finding of wrongdoing and I CAN only needs to pay $69,000 to be split among the seven teachers.

David Quolke, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union told The Plain Dealer that he and other Ohio Federation of Teacher leaders feel vindicated by the NLRB settlement, calling it “one of the strongest we’ve seen in our years of helping to organize our fellow teachers at charter schools.”

I CAN teachers are reportedly planning to schedule a union vote this coming fall. They will join a growing number of charter teachers around the country who are also organizing their own union drives.

There’s Still No Money In Sight for New Rail Tunnels Under the Hudson River. Blame Chris Christie.

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on July 22, 2015.
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In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled a tremendously important rail tunnel project under the Hudson River that had been in the works for nearly 20 years; billions of dollars had already been saved up for it. The only tunnels that currently exist there were built more than 100 years ago, are incapable of handling projected ridership growth, and have suffered serious deterioration—especially after Hurricane Sandy. The new tunnels would have helped not only New Jersey commuters but also all passengers who travel along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Christie’s decision to cancel the tunnel project, motivated by a fear of raising his state’s extremely low gas tax and thereby risk jeopardizing his national political ambitions, was one of the most irresponsible and reckless of his career. He not only cancelled the project, but he also spent the money that had been saved up for it on other things—leaving riders with no tunnel, and no solid prospects for one in the future. (For more details, see my cover story on Christie’s cancellation.)

Though my report was published in January, five months later there had been, according to the New York Times, little progress made towards securing funding for Amtrak’s proposed alternative rail project, which has an estimated price tag of $16 billion. Peter M. Rogoff, the under secretary in the federal Transportation Department, had reportedly “pleaded with transportation officials from throughout the metropolitan area to pull together on a plan.”

Well, it looks like those pleas didn’t go very far. Just yesterday Politico reported that Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, expressed great frustration at the lack of regional leadership in taking steps towards building the new tunnels. He said the region’s failure to act is “almost criminal” and that building these tunnels is “perhaps one of the—if not the—most important project in the country right now that’s not happening.”

Amtrak has estimated that their two-tube rail tunnel project under the Hudson River could be built by 2025 if funds were appropriated immediately. Yet after months of urgent begging, still nobody’s coughing up the money. To make matters worse, Amtrak officials aren’t even sure if the existing tunnels can hold up for another decade due to their age and the damage they’ve sustained from Hurricane Sandy.

This is a serious, serious mess. And as this presidential campaign season drags on, don’t forget that it was Chris Christie who orchestrated the disaster.

Why the Dichotomy Between Racial and Economic Justice is A False One

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on July 21, 2015.
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Yesterday, Vox’s Dara Lind published a post analyzing what this past weekend’s protests at Netroots Nation tell us about splits within the progressive movement. I personally don’t think Bernie Sanders handled the Black Lives Matter demonstrators very well, and I imagine his advisers had several serious conversations with him following the conference about how to better approach these voters going forward. He’s a politician—I’m pretty confident he’ll figure out how to campaign more effectively.

It’s the media analysis I’m more worried about.

Lind writes:

There is a legitimate disconnect between the way Sanders (and many of the economic progressives who support him) see the world, and the way many racial justice progressives see the world. To Bernie Sanders, as I’ve written, racial inequality is a symptom—but economic inequality is the disease. That’s why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem.

Many racial justice advocates don’t see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms. They feel that it’s important to acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on people of color, but that racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality. And, most importantly, they feel that “pivoting” to economic issues can be a way for white progressives to present their agenda as the progressive agenda and shove black progressives, and the issues that matter most to them, to the sidelines.

We must push back against this false dichotomy of “racial justice progressives” and “economic progressives.” I think it’s a harmful way to frame what’s going on, and it suggests that we can have racial justice without economic justice, and that economic justice can come about without tackling racism. Neither is true, at all.

Racial justice amounts to far more than dismantling our racist criminal justice system and reining in police brutality. Affordable housing, public education, and quality health care are all issues that impact individuals directly based on class and race. Drawing imaginary lines between them just doesn’t work.

I’m not frustrated with the coverage because, as Lind suggests, I just want to defend Sanders. I am frustrated because attempts to separate economic issues—whether it’s jobs, or retirement savings, or health care, or prisons, or loans, or taxes—from racial justice, is a deeply troubling way to lead a national conversation about racism.

Why Don’t Settlements Over Brutality Come Out of Police Budgets?

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 16, 2015.
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On July 17, 2014, New York City police officers choked Eric Garner, a black man in Staten Island, to death. This week, nearly one year later, the city announced that it would pay the Garner family $5.9 million to settle their wrongful-death claim.

“Financial compensation is certainly not everything, and it can’t bring Mr. Garner back. But it is our way of creating balance and giving a family a certain closure,” said the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer to The New York Times.

Families of police brutality victims deserve to be compensated, no doubt. A different question, however, is should police departments be required to pay for their misconduct too?

As I’ve written previously, these steep police brutality payments rarely come from the police department budgets. Rather, cities pay for them through their general coffers or their city insurance plan.

The NYPD has a budget of over $4 billion. Even if the police department wasn’t expected to bear 100 percent of the liability, what if they were asked to pay a share—say 25 percent—of the settlement costs? Having a cut to their budget for misbehavior could motivate senior police officials to be more responsive to police misconduct and lead departmental reforms.

“That’s why these enormous financial penalties do not seem to actually impact what police do,” David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal justice issues, told me in September. “Conceivably, if cities didn’t want this to happen, they could say this will come out of your [police] budget.”

The $5.9 million for Eric Garner’s family will come from a general New York City fund made up of local taxes, fees, fines, and tickets. (No state and federal money will be used.) Taxpayer dollars also finance the NYPD—so either way the taxpayer will be footing the bill—but still, as it stands, the NYPD’s budget is left untouched.

According to data from the New York City Comptroller’s Bureau of Law and Adjustment (BLA), in fiscal year 2012, New York City paid out $485.9 million personal injury and property damage tort settlements and judgments. The largest portion of that came from claims filed against the NYPD—$151.9 million in total. According to their report, “tort claims against the NYPD include, but are not limited to, allegations of police misconduct, civil rights violations, and personal injury and/or property damage arising out of motor vehicle accidents involving police vehicles.”

The question of “who pays” matters particularly as the number of tort claims has trended upward between 2008 and 2012. According to the data, the proportion of new NYPD tort claims rose from 25 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2012.

As Doug Turetsky, the Chief of Staff at the New York City Independent Budget Office pointed out, the police department’s budget has also grown significantly since the 1980s.

“It’s a strange sociological story,” muses Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans. “On the one hand we allow the police to beat up victims and on the other hand we pay the victims large sums of money. There are no other occupations I can think of where people would not get punished. If I as a professor cost Columbia University $100,000—maybe even $50,000—they would have fired me. How expensive do police mistakes have to be?”

Though the public may likely protest any huge cutback in police funding, the city council and mayor could always decide to restore funding, if necessary. This would at least help to create a better system of incentives. If police departments felt they had something to lose, then maybe fewer Eric Garners would die needlessly.

NEA Members Announce They Will Fight Institutional Racism. Do They Mean It?

Originally published on the American Prospect Tapped blog on July 9, 2015.
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At the National Education Association’s recently concluded annual meeting—a gathering where the country’s largest labor union sets its policy priorities for the coming year—delegates passed several historic measures that committed the union to fighting institutional racism.

Perhaps the most notable measure was New Business Item B, which passed unanimously. It opened with language stating that the NEA “acknowledge[s] the existence in our country of institutional racism—the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” Allocating $277,000 to the effort, the union pledged to, among other things, focus on providing support for programs that can “end the school to prison pipeline” and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.” While this funding will last for one year, the measure includes a clause that says some money should go toward “researching implications for NEA’s Strategic Plan and Budget for 2016-2018,” which suggests that the union would consider devoting more resources to anti-racist efforts in the future.

EduColor—a relatively new movement to elevate public school advocates of color on issues of equity and justice—released a statement following the NEA’s conference. While EduColor’s members applauded the steps taken by the union to confront institutional racism, they pointed out that “it should humble all of us to some degree that it took such a long time to do what seemed so obvious to NEA members of color.” With school segregation, inequitable school funding, and shortages of black and brown teachers, EduColor said, “Now, we must go beyond statements and into the substance of our actions.” Making anti-racist work compulsory for their union, they argue, must “sit side-by-side with collective bargaining rights.”

Jose Vilson, the founder of EduColor, writing on his blog, said he hopes the NEA is committed to fighting racism because its members truly believe in social justice, and not because its members are afraid of being labeled as racists if they don’t. Vilson noted that the NEA introduced and passed bills that he “wouldn’t have thought possible even a few months ago”—a testament to the hard and difficult conversations taking place in their union and across the country—but that still, “we have to recognize that many of our colleagues aren’t ready to hear that they may be part of the problem, too.”

The questions that have come to the forefront of education policy debates over the past year are not about to disappear, or be resolved, anytime soon. The NEA joins the American Federation of Teachers, a union with a much longer history of tackling racial justice issues, in reckoning with how to fight politically for greater equity and opportunity both within and outside of the school building. While the two unions seem to recognize that education is greatly impacted by economic inequality, incarceration, and racism, it will no doubt take activist educators to keep their organizations’ priorities focused on results.

Are Uber and Lyft Driving Recalled Cars?

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 8, 2015.
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U
ber and Lyft—two popular ride-sharing companies sweeping cities worldwide—work hard to market their transportation services as safe and secure. On Lyft’s website, the company boasts, “As pioneers in transportation, we’re changing the industry with safety front of mind.” Touting their mandatory inspection requirements, like driver criminal background checks, the company declares: “We designed safety into every part of Lyft.” Uber’s rhetoric is quite similar. “From the moment you request a ride to the moment you arrive, the Uber experience has been designed from the ground up with your safety in mind,” their website states. Phillip Cardenas, the Head of Global Safety at Uber says that while his company is committed to continually improving its policies, he believes Uber has “built the safest transportation option in 260 cities around the world.”

Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of time looking into the growing number of recalled but unrepaired vehicles on the road. Auto manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issue safety recalls when they determine that a vehicle or particular piece of motor vehicle equipment creates an unreasonable safety risk or fails to meet minimum safety standards. But while manufacturers must repair recalled vehicles for free, consumers are not actually required to fix their cars—and many don’t. At the end of 2014, Carfax estimated 46 million cars were on the road with unfixed safety recalls.

Reformers have been working to close many of the regulatory loopholes in American auto recall policy. For example, while it’s long been illegal under federal law to sell recalled new cars, no such law exists for used cars, and more than 35 million used vehicles are sold annually. Advocates have been pushing Congress to ban this practice, though most car dealerships remain staunchly opposed. In the rental car world, under federal law, companies can still legally rent cars with unfixed safety recalls, however Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise—which account for more than 90 percent of the rental car market—pledged in 2012 to stop doing so.The companies also support federal legislation that would ban renting recalled cars, but the bill is stalled in Congress. While no such legislative effort exists for ride-sharing companies, I started to wonder, well what about Uber and Lyft? Where do they stand on auto recall reform?

Uber and Lyft’s Weak Defenses

It turns out that despite Uber and Lyft’s public rhetoric about safety, consumers that use these services may be riding in vehicles with unfixed safety recalls. Neither company requires its drivers to repair recalled cars; in fact, the mandatory safety inspections do not even involve checking to see if a car has been recalled. (To check, one would enter a vehicle’s 17-digit VIN number online.)

I reached out to Uber and Lyft to ask whether they allow drivers to work for them with unfixed safety recalls, and what steps the companies take to keep track of recalled cars in their fleets. It’s possible, for example, that a manufacturer could issue a recall for an Uber driver’s car a year or two after the driver has already been working for the company. How does Uber keep track of this? Do they keep track?

An Uber spokesman responded: “Manufacturers notify vehicle owners of recalls. Uber doesn’t own vehicles, we provide a technology platform to help connect drivers—who are independent contractors—with riders. It’s important to note that drivers on the Uber Platform are expected to meet and maintain all vehicle safety standards.”

Chelsea Wilson, a spokesperson for Lyft, told me: “Lyft drivers use their personal vehicles to drive on the platform—the same car they use in their daily lives, driving their kids to school or friends around town. Drivers have a strong personal incentive to make sure their car is in a safe operating condition. In addition to the safety inspection conducted by Lyft, drivers make a continuous representation that their vehicle meets the industry safety standards and all applicable state department of motor vehicle requirements of its kind.”

So Uber says that their car inspections do not include checking for safety recalls because manufacturers will notify vehicle owners if there’s a problem. But what if an Uber driver owns a used car? One of the biggest issues with auto recalls in the U.S. is that manufacturers cannot send secondary car owners mail notices because driver privacy protection laws shield their contact information. Ideally the state would pick up this responsibility, but for now this has meant that many used car owners never learn their car has been recalled. Unless Uber required all their drivers to operate new cars—which it doesn’t—then claiming manufacturer notifications will be sufficient is incorrect.

Moreover, as we’ve seen, even if drivers are aware that their car has an open safety recall, many do not feel compelled to take their car in to be fixed. If Uber wants to ensure that all their cars are actually safe, then presumably they would require each car inspection to include checking for safety recalls, and make the repair of any outstanding recall a requirement for passing the company’s safety inspection.

Lyft suggests that because their drivers use their own cars, there are strong “personal incentives” to ensure that recalled vehicles will be fixed, even if Lyft doesn’t mandate it. But the reason that millions of cars aren’t getting repaired isn’t because they aren’t personal vehicles—most of them are—it’s because owners don’t know they have a recall, or because owners don’t have the time, resources, or will to get their cars fixed.

Legal Liability

Ignoring safety recalls may also put ride-sharing services in murky legal territory in the event of an accident. What happens for instance if a passenger is injured in an Uber or Lyft car that has an unfixed safety recall? Who could be held liable?

I asked Taras Rudnitsky these questions, a former car safety engineer who now works as a consumer justice attorney for victims in auto accidents. According to Rudnitsky, even though the drivers are classified as independent contractors, both the driver and the ride-sharing company could be liable for damages if a passenger was hurt in a recalled car.

In the case of the driver, Rudnitsky explains, a jury would determine whether the driver’s actions fell below the standard of care a reasonable person would take in the same circumstances. “If you’re going to be making money off of your car rides, shouldn’t you make sure your car is in good shape?” he asks. Even if Uber or Lyft didn’t require the driver to check for safety recalls, given that the individual sought to profit from rides that consumers believed to be safe—a driver could certainly be found guilty of negligence in the event of a preventable auto recall accident.

In other words, the fact that Uber and Lyft aggressively market themselves as safe companies reinforces the need for them to prohibit unfixed recalled vehicles from operating within their ride-sharing fleets.
The next question is whether a victim could reasonably go after Uber or Lyft, too. For this, Rudnitsky believes a victim could probably make a strong case that the ride-sharing companies were negligent and fraudulent. “This isn’t just something where an inadvertent accident happened. [These companies] are affirmatively making a case about the safety of these rides with the intention of getting people to call them for business,” he says. In other words, the fact that Uber and Lyft aggressively market themselves as safe companies reinforces the need for them to prohibit unfixed recalled vehicles from operating within their ride-sharing fleets.

“I had never thought about it before, but there’s an awful lot of culpability,” muses Rudnitsky.

Ways To Change Their Policies And Keep Roads Safe

The good news? This is an easy policy fix for Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services to make. In order to ensure that all their cars are safe not only for consumers, but also for other riders on the road, Uber and Lyft should formally prohibit their drivers from using ride-sharing technology until they have repaired any outstanding safety recalls.

Beyond that, Uber and Lyft should instate procedures to ensure that they know exactly which cars in their fleets have unfixed safety recalls at all times, even beyond the initial safety inspection. Since new recalls are announced often, the companies could hire staff to regularly check the VINs in their fleets with NHTSA’s data. Alternatively they could rely on vehicle history reporting services that send regular updates on new auto safety recalls. Another option is AutoAp—a tech company that automatically sends alerts when new safety recalls are announced that match specific VIN numbers you wish to track.

Moreover, Uber and Lyft could follow the example set by the big rental car companies and press for legislation that would formally ban ride-sharing drivers from taking passengers around in unsafe recalled vehicles.

All of these changes would improve auto safety, and none would be too difficult to implement. Why wait?

Will Students Soon Be Tested for ‘Grit’?

Originally published on The American Prospect Tapped blog July 7, 2015.

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—nicknamed “the Nation’s Report Card”—is the largest nationally representative assessment that tests what American students know and can do in different subjects.

Curiously, it was recently announced that beginning in 2017, NAEP plans to start measuring so-called “non-cognitive skills” like motivation and grit in the background surveys they issue to all test-takers. Additionally, according to Education Week, questions about “self-efficacy and personal achievement goals may be included on questionnaires for specific subjects to create content-area measures.”

Though schools won’t be judged based on these NAEP measures, the article says, “other such tests for accountability purposes may be on the horizon.” A coalition of seven districts in California are reportedly developing an accountability system that will evaluate schools in part by including measures of “growth mindset, self efficacy and self-management, and social awareness.” These are supposed to be in place next year.

The odd thing about this NAEP announcement is that very recently psychologists Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager published a paper in the journal Educational Researcher arguing that while emerging findings on character skills are promising, existing research is not ready to be incorporated into accountability assessments. Angela Duckworth told NPR that she feels “enthusiasm” for these measures “is getting ahead of the science” and that wanting to use these skills for evaluation would be gravely premature.

In April I published a long piece on the rise of grit fervor in education reform, which looked at the ways in which current tools to measure grit and other character traits are flawed. There are significant limitations to self-reported assessments, and Duckworth and Yeager’s subsequent journal paper echoed these concerns. Researchers haven’t given up on developing improved measures, and they are currently exploring future possibilities like computer simulations.

The intellectual humility Duckworth and Yeager demonstrated in their paper (and this video) is quite impressive, and should not be understated. Why school districts and NAEP are still intent on moving forward quickly with measuring these skills then deserves some further clarification.

Sorry, Walmart: Charter Schools Won’t Fix Poverty

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 30th, 2015.
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Last week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and In the Public Interest released a highly critical report on the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education philanthropy, which ended with a call for increased transparency and accountability in the charter sector. The gist of the report is that the Walton Family Foundation—which has kick-started about one in four charters around the country—“relentlessly presses for rapid growth of privatized education options” and has opposed serious efforts to regulate and monitor fraud and abuse. While the foundation supports rapidly scaling up charter networks that have produced promising results, the AFT and In the Public Interest cite a 2013 Moody’s Investment Services report which found that dramatically expanding charter schools in poor urban areas weakens the ability of traditional schools to serve their students, forcing them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs to make ends meet.

A month earlier, Philamplify, an initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), published its own report on the Walton Family Foundation’s impact, and found that although they have achieved meaningful results through their environmental philanthropy, “an overreliance on specific market-based vehicles” hinders their ability to create “sustainable and equitable” improvements in education. Philamplify also criticized the Walton Family Foundation for “insulating itself among like-minded peers rather than connecting with the broader field.”

While the Walton Family Foundation did not return my request for comment, Education Week reported that their spokesperson, Daphne Moore, defended their commitment to high-quality schools. Education Week also cites Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—an organization that receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation—who argued that the foundation has long demonstrated a commitment to accountability and transparency.

This discussion is sure to continue over the coming months, but what was particularly striking was something in the Walton Family Foundation’s response to the Philamplify report—a statement that has been reiterated by the foundation many times over the past several years. Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 program director, said, “Education is the set of work we can support that will most directly end the cycle of poverty and change the trajectory of young people’s lives.”

The notion that education is needed to break the cycle of poverty is a popular mantra of the education reform movement. The problem is, it is simply not true at all. The most direct way to break the cycle of poverty is actually to give poor people more money, something that high-quality educations, even college degrees, do not in any way guarantee. So when it comes to the question of redistribution—an integral component to any comprehensive anti-poverty program—the political work of the Walton family deserves far greater scrutiny.

Waltons, Walmart, and Politics

The Walton family heirs own a majority of public shares in Walmart, the U.S.’s largest private employer, which easily makes them some of the richest people on earth. Today, the Walton family has more wealth than 49 million American families combined. The six Walton heirs together have a net worth of at least $148.8 billion.

The Walton family engages in quite a bit of political work outside of its environmental and education philanthropy—much of it to advance conservative legislative goals. In the 2014 electoral cycle, Walmart spent $2.4 million through its PAC and individual donations, and $12.5 million through lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Walmart was far and away the biggest big-box retail spender in the election cycle, and has been ranked among the top 100 political donors since 1989. Demos looked at the Walton family’s political contributions between 2000 and 2014 and found that their $7.3 million in campaign contributions heavily favored Republican candidates over Democrats.

Outside of political campaigns, Walmart employs an array of Washington, D.C., lobbyists to advocate on issues like labor, taxes, and trade. Up until May 2012, Walmart was a longtime member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works to promote an ideologically conservative agenda around the country. Moreover Walmart has given millions to the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Republican Governors Association, and other organizations that push right-wing policies.

Their animus towards union and labor is no secret, and Walmart has fought strengthening labor law in Washington, D.C., as well as supporting efforts to expand right-to-work laws in state legislatures. In addition, as veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reported for The Atlantic this month, Walmart “maintains a steady drumbeat of anti-union information at its more than 4,000 U.S. stores”—much of which is patently false.

Beyond their efforts to elect conservative candidates and promote right-wing causes, the Waltons also fight against efforts to promote a greater redistribution of wealth through taxation. According to Treasury Department estimates, closing just two estate tax loopholes that the Waltons use would raise more than $2 billion annually over the next decade—but they have long lobbied against any effort to do so. Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state organizations that seeks to promote progressive tax reform, found that Walmart and the Walton family benefit from an estimated $7.8 billion in annual tax breaks, loopholes, and subsidies—much of which stems from the fact that so many of Walmart employees earn meager wages and are forced to rely on public assistance.

After years of worker organizing and public pressure, Walmart recently announced that it would raise its hourly wages to $9 an hour by April and $10 an hour by February 2016. While encouraging, such measures alone are unlikely to mitigate the economic hardship most Americans face—especially when, at this point, many cities are pushing for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Economic Inequality and Public Education

The evidence that shows impoverished kids are disadvantaged in school is well-documented—and yet many education reformers insist that despite this, we can still provide every child with a high-quality education so that everyone succeeds. We shouldn’t use poverty as “an excuse,” they say.

The idea that we can redesign education to be excellent and equitable without reducing poverty and economic inequality certainly sounds politically pleasant, but we know it’s just not true. That’s why the education agenda of the Walton Family Foundation has so many internal contradictions. The Waltons say they want to create more high-quality schools to help kids in poverty, but they back candidates who support eroding the already crumbling social safety net and fight against paying their fair share of taxes. And while the Waltons continue to advocate aggressively against unions, the Economic Policy Institute has found that the decline in unionization has mirrored the rise in inequality “to a remarkable extent.”

Not only does poverty hurt one’s chance for success in school, but growing levels of economic inequality also further exacerbate these issues—problems that the Walton heirs do not seem interested in addressing. Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago—though the academic performance of poor students has not declined during this time. He also found that before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students when it came to academic performance, but “the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.” In other words, growing economic inequality has contributed to disparities in academic achievement across the board, even for those not living in poverty. Other researchers have found that the rich now have much greater access to extracurricular opportunities than the poor. In districts across the country, enrichment programs like art, music, journalism, and athletics are being cut—creating even greater divides between the haves and the have-nots in education.

If we want to reduce poverty and economic inequality—things we know hurt student achievement and life outcomes—then we have to address how the education aims of the Walton Family Foundation are incongruous with their political agenda elsewhere. Closing the achievement gap, as Demos analyst Matt Bruenig points out, will not even reduce poverty; it would merely change the distribution of it. In the education-reform world, unfortunately, grantees are unlikely to criticize foundations because they fear they will be blacklisted or de-funded. This makes sense, as there are incredible power imbalances in the philanthropic sector and money is scarce.

The Walton Family Foundation talks a lot about creating high-quality schools. If Walmart, with its billions of dollars in profits, created high-quality jobs with living wages and benefits, children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty and would perform far better in school. Relatedly, if the Waltons backed candidates who supported a more equitable distribution of wealth and stronger social-welfare policies, then children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty, and perform far better in school. It’s certainly true that every child deserves a high-quality education. How to get there, however, is not rocket science.

When Charters Go Union

Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of  The American Prospect
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The April sun had not yet risen in Los Angeles when teachers from the city’s largest charter network—the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools—gathered outside for a press conference to discuss their new union drive. Joined by local labor leaders, politicians, student alumni, and parents, the importance of the educators’ effort was not lost on the crowd. If teachers were to prevail in winning collective bargaining rights at Alliance’s 26 schools, the audience recognized, then L.A.’s education reform landscape would fundamentally change. For years, after all, many of the most powerful charter backers had proclaimed that the key to helping students succeed was union-free schools.

One month earlier, nearly 70 Alliance teachers and counselors had sent a letter to the administration announcing their intent to join United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the local teachers union that represents the 35,000 educators who work in L.A.’s public schools. The letter asked Alliance for a “fair and neutral process”—one that would allow teachers to organize without fear of retaliation. The administration offered no such reassurance. Indeed, April’s press conference was called to highlight a newly discovered internal memo circulating among Alliance administrators that offered tips on how to best discourage staff from forming a union. It also made clear that Alliance would oppose any union, not just UTLA. “To continue providing what is best for our schools and our students, the goal is no unionization, not which union,” the memo said.

The labor struggle happening in Los Angeles mirrors a growing number of efforts taking place at charter schools around the country, where most teachers work with no job security on year-to-year contracts. For teachers, unions, and charter school advocates, the moment is fraught with challenges. Traditional unions are grappling with how they can both organize charter teachers and still work politically to curb charter expansion. Charter school backers and funders are trying to figure out how to hold an anti-union line, while continuing to market charters as vehicles for social justice.

Though 68 percent of K-12 public school teachers are unionized, just 7 percent of charter school teachers are, according to a 2012 study from the Center for Education Reform. (And of those, half are unionized only because state law stipulates that they follow their district’s collective bargaining agreement.) However, the momentum both to open new charter schools and to organize charter staff is growing fast.

IRONICALLY, THE FIRST MAJOR PROPOSAL to establish charter schools came from the nation’s most famous teacher union leader. At the National Press Club in 1988, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave a speech outlining a “new type of school.” Shanker envisioned publicly funded but independently managed schools, which would be given the space to try out new educational approaches and would continue to receive public dollars so long as their approaches proved to be effective. These schools would act as educational laboratories, testing grounds of new and better practices that could then be adopted by traditional public schools. A few months after his speech, Shanker dubbed his idea “charter schools,” in a reference to explorers who received charters to seek new land and resources. Later that year, the 3,000 delegates at the national AFT convention endorsed Shanker’s charter idea.

At its conception, then, unions were integral to the charter movement. The thinking was that without job security and elevated teacher voice, which unions help ensure, how else would charter teachers feel comfortable enough to take educational risks in their classrooms? In Shanker’s original vision, as Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter trace in their book A Smarter Charter, not only were charter teachers to be unionized, but union representatives were to sit on charter authorizing boards—the entities tasked with overseeing charter accountability—and all charter school proposals were to include “a plan for faculty decision-making.” In return, certain union regulations would be relaxed in order to facilitate greater experimentation.

The charter movement has grown from a single Minnesota school, which opened in 1992, to more than 6,700 schools spread across 42 states and the District of Columbia. Today, charters educate more than 2.5 million children—more than 5 percent of all public school students. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), charter enrollment has increased by 70 percent over the past five years. Public support is growing, too: A 2014 PDK/Gallup survey revealed that 70 percent of Americans support charter schools, up from 42 percent in 2000.

Somewhere along the way, however, charter proponents—conservative and liberal alike—decided that having no unions was an important ingredient for charter school success. By making it easier for principals to hire and fire staff, the proponents argued, schools could better ensure that only high-quality teachers would be working in the classrooms. The blame for the widening achievement gap between black and white students, the proponents believed, rested with underperforming teachers and the unions that defended them. Over time, advocates came to see charters not as institutions designed for collaboration with public schools, but as institutions that could compete against them, perhaps even replacing public schools entirely.

As the charter movement developed a more adversarial bent—one that no longer spoke of productive partnerships with public schools, and one that championed union-free workplaces—traditional teachers unions grew understandably defensive. The AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s two largest teachers unions, moved to openly oppose charter schools. Only in the past few years has their stance toward charters begun to soften. Beginning in 2007 and 2008, the AFT set up a national charter-organizing division, and today has organizers in seven cities: L.A., Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, and Philadelphia. Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing, says that as more charter teachers began approaching her union, the NEA started to see them as educators who should be treated no differently from anyone else. Both unions also recognized that such new national initiatives as the Common Core standards and President Obama’s Race for the Top meant that teachers at charter and traditional public schools faced similar challenges that the unions could help them address.

But organizing charter school teachers while opposing the establishment of more charter schools is no simple balancing act. “How could I support a union that for the last ten years spent a good portion of their time attacking our right to exist?” asks Craig Winchell, an Alliance high school teacher who turned out in opposition to April’s press conference. “They’ve spent the last ten years both supporting anti-charter school board members and fighting in Sacramento against what we do.” Especially when opening a new charter is paired with closing down a traditional school, unions are typically found rallying in protest. Critics argue that unions’ newfound interest in charter teachers, then, is just a ploy to collect more membership dues.

Having abandoned their outright opposition to charters, many of the AFT and NEA’s recent efforts have been focused on shutting down low-performing charter schools, especially within rapidly expanding for-profit chains, and pushing for a set of national charter accountability standards. While the thought of national guidelines for charter school makes many charter advocates squirm, the public overwhelmingly supports the idea. According to a survey conducted this year by In The Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy, 89 percent of Americans favor requiring charter management organizations to hold open board meetings with the public, as well as requiring all teachers who work in charter schools to meet the same level of training and qualifications as those in traditional public schools. Eighty-six percent favor requiring greater transparency over charters’ annual taxpayer-funded contracts and budgets, and 88 percent favor requiring state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances.

In 2014, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University released a report that documented a host of charter school problems, ranging from uneven academic performance to funding schemes that destabilized neighboring schools. The report laid out national policy recommendations designed to promote increased accountability, transparency, and equity.

The AFT and NEA came out strongly in support of the Annenberg standards, and have been working to promote them to state legislatures and school boards around the country. Leaders in the charter world, however, were less than pleased. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), an organization that seeks to influence the policies and practices of state authorizers, called the standards “incomplete, judgmental, and not based on research or data.” Michael Brickman, then the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, said the Annenberg standards would stifle charters’ innovation by “bludgeoning them with regulation.” He accused the authors of “standing in the way of progress” with their “overzealous statutory recommendations.” (The president and CEO of NAPCS, Nina Rees, told me she actually likes the Annenberg standards, but doesn’t know if they should be adopted across the board.)

IN 2007, BRIAN HARRIS started working as a special education teacher at the Chicago International Charter School’s Northtown Academy. “I’d just got out of grad school and was happy to have a job,” Harris says. “It didn’t bother me that it was non-union because it wasn’t something I paid attention to.” In May of 2008, the company’s CEO announced that in the following school years, teachers would have to teach a sixth class in lieu of supervising an academic lab (which is similar to study hall). Teachers were surprised and upset at what amounted to significant change in working conditions. Those who didn’t like the new arrangement, the administration told them, could find some place else to work.

It was an eye-opening moment for Harris, and he realized that this is what it meant to have a workplace without an organized staff. “We didn’t know [this CEO], we didn’t have a lot of connections with management, and people were unsure what the line of authority was,” Harris says. So with the help of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS), a union connected to the AFT and its Illinois affiliate, Harris and his colleagues launched a 13-month organizing drive. Yet even when presented with union affiliation cards from 75 percent of the faculty, administrators refused to recognize their union; they insisted that the teachers would have to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election. The teachers did just that, won the election, and Northtown became the first unionized charter school in Chicago.

Today, Harris serves as president for Chicago ACTS, which has grown to represent 32 charter schools and nearly 1,000 teachers. Chicago ACTS’s relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), an AFT local known for its militant opposition to school privatization and charter school expansion, has also evolved substantially over the years.

CTU was initially ambivalent, even suspicious, of these new unionized charter teachers. But Chris Baehrend, an English teacher at Chicago’s Latino Youth High School and vice president of Chicago ACTS, says this wariness was not reciprocated—indeed, ACTS was inspired by CTU and looked to it as a model. In the spring of 2012, as CTU was gearing up for its successful, eight-day strike against Chicago’s school district, ACTS teachers began to discuss how they could best offer CTU support. They decided to put forth a strongly worded resolution at the AFT’s national convention that summer. In it, the charter teachers called for a moratorium on new charter schools and an end to school closings and turnarounds “until their system-wide impact on educational outcomes can be properly assessed.” Baehrend and Harris worked with CTU leaders to finalize the resolution’s language, which was approved, though not adopted as official AFT policy.

The resolution was the first joint action that Chicago ACTS took with CTU. Since then, the two unions have convened for joint delegate trainings, workshops, and even parties. “We’re making conscious efforts to make connections and to encourage charter and traditional public school teachers to be joined in solidarity,” says Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of CTU. Sharkey himself turned out to a press conference in February to publicly support two Chicago charters in the midst of organizing.

ON APRIL 30, EDUCATORS AT North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted to form a union. The vote came after a long three-year battle with their employer, ASPIRA. With a final tally of 104–38 in favor of unionization, Olney became one of the largest unionized charter schools on the East Coast.

When the Olney campaign first went public, as Jake Blumgart reported for The American Prospect back in 2013, teachers went to deliver their union petition, signed by 65 percent of the staff. “[The principal] not only refused to accept it, but chased them down the hallway to give it back,” Blumgart wrote. That was just the start of a full-bore, anti-union campaign: Administrators held closed-door, one-on-one meetings with teachers and staff, threatened teachers with layoffs and benefit cuts, put anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, required teachers to attend mandatory meetings with anti-union consultants, and announced that teachers could be fired or disciplined for remarks they made about ASPIRA on social media.

When I asked Sarah Apt, an ESL teacher at Olney, if she ever tried to talk to management about workplace issues before going the union route, she laughed. “We’ve had a million committees and conversations,” Apt says. “You can have a conversation with them now! But without your coworkers standing behind you, the [outcome of] the conversation depends entirely on the whims of the administration.”

Apt says she and her coworkers want to build a union that will agitate for themselves and their students, in collaboration with parents and the community. “Chicago [where striking teachers won high levels of community and parental support] has set a new standard for what can be done with a teachers union in the United States,” she says. Parents have been standing behind the Olney organizing effort, from showing up to support teachers at school board meetings to making calls to the administration on their behalf. More than 40 local businesses also signed a petition backing the teachers’ campaign.

Though regional characteristics and local politics shape each charter school’s distinct organizing drive, the general hopes, challenges, and frustrations expressed by charter teachers I spoke with were strikingly similar.

Greg Swanson, an English teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School, the top-performing charter school in Louisiana, echoes Apt’s frustrations about the power dynamics that can inhibit teachers from effecting change in a non-unionized school. (New Orleans has the highest charter density in the country, claiming roughly 90 percent of the city’s public school students.) Before Ben Franklin High’s teachers decided to unionize, Swanson says, they tried different ways to increase teacher voice, such as forming a committee to advocate for teacher and student issues, including better teacher course loads, increased curriculum coordination, and more academic supports for incoming students. “When we brought [our ideas] to the attention of the administration, we were just told that they can deal with some things and not others,” Swanson recalls. “Without the pressure of the union, [our voices are] not heard in the same way.”

In March, after 85 percent of his Ben Franklin colleagues backed a petition in support of unionization, Swanson and his coworkers signed the first collective bargaining agreement for New Orleans teachers since Hurricane Katrina. Teachers not only won greater pay-scale transparency in their contract but also the right to have department chairs elected by their colleagues rather than appointed by their CEO. They won increased time within the school day to prepare lesson plans, greater job security, and a fairer teacher evaluation system.

Ben Franklin has long been regarded as an educational leader in Louisiana, and Swanson’s team understood that their organizing had consequence for the broader political landscape. “We were looking to improve things in our school, but we were also very much aware of the larger implications of this for New Orleans, which is the testing ground for going full-charter,” said Swanson. With this in mind, they worked to develop a contract that they hope can become a model for charter teachers across the city. Teachers at another local charter, Morris Jeff Community School, followed their lead, and are currently negotiating their own contract.

Many New Orleans charter advocates are wary of the turn toward unionization, but some leaders are urging the community to stay calm. Andre Perry, an education policy expert, wrote in The Hechinger Report that New Orleans reformers should be open to unions given the Crescent City’s high rate of teacher turnover. Ten years after Katrina, he wrote, “we’re not going to fire our way to educational success.

EVERY YEAR, THE NATIONAL Alliance of Public Charter Schools publishes a rating system that evaluates each state’s charter law. While charters with collective bargaining agreements are still considered welcome within the charter school family, state laws receive a higher NAPCS score when they allow administrators to hire and fire teachers free from the constraints of a collective bargaining agreement. Nina Rees, the NAPCS president, says her organization places a premium on this because charters should have the freedom not only to hire and fire, but also to expand the school day and workload “without having to constantly negotiate with a centralized bureaucracy.”

Terry Moe, a Stanford political scientist and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, thinks that while “teacher voice” is a necessary component to any functioning organization, teachers unions use their power in ways that are not in the best interests of students. Moe and Rees both take the position that in the modern world, unions are not necessary in charter schools, either because there are already sufficient employee protections in place in our legal system, or just because the incentives within the charter world are such that there’s not really all that much to worry about.

“I’m in a nonprofit space,” Rees says. “Why is it that teachers need to have the right [to be in a union]? Why is it that teachers need these protections immediately when they enter the organization?” If one wants some of the protections and benefits that unions offer, she points out, there are other resources available to teachers. The Association of American Educators (AAE), for instance, is a non-unionized professional educators’ organization that offers a “modern approach to teacher representation and educational advocacy.” Membership in AAE can bring you things like liability insurance, supplementary insurance, legal protection, and employment rights coverage. It cannot, however, bring you leverage with your employer.

In A Smarter Charter, Potter and Kahlenberg recommend giving teachers an opportunity to vote on whether or not to form a union when a charter school first opens, rather than having non-union environments be the default option. Where a school has no union, they suggest reserving seats for teachers on charter school boards. But Rees is no fan of these ideas either. “If you start off with the premise that management is against the employee before you even start the enterprise,” she says, “I think it sets the wrong tone.”

The generally small size of charters, Moe adds, also obviates the need for unions. “In small schools, where everyone knows one another and they can talk about their issues …  you’re really not likely to get the same dissatisfaction that would drive people to unionize in the great number of charter schools,” he says.

Leading charter advocates echo Moe and Rees’s sentiments. Chester Finn, a conservative policy analyst, declared, “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Geoffrey Canada, a charter founder hailed as a pioneer by Obama, said that union contracts, “kill innovation; it stops anything from changing.”

Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of NACSA, doesn’t buy the argument that unions are structurally incompatible with charters. “There are people who politically don’t want unions or don’t want charters to be unionized, but [allowing workers to choose] is the law of the land.” The key question, he argues, is whether unionization ends up helping or hurting student achievement—a question that will be resolved empirically. “If teachers want to organize and negotiate for certain things, go ahead,” he says, because in the end, the charter school has to work for students or else its charter will be revoked.

So are unions compatible with fulfilling the promise of charter schools?

I sat down with Juan Salgado, the president and CEO of Instituto Del Progreso Latino, a nonprofit educational organization in Pilsen, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, to learn what it’s been like for him to oversee two charters that have unionized with AFT. Salgado believes that unions have been tremendous assets for his schools, particularly around some of the more fraught questions of wages and benefits. Can such issues be resolved “without a union?” he asks. “Yeah. But can we move forward to actually run a school? Probably not.” The mutual buy-in at the end of the negotiating process, Salgado said, created a better spirit at his schools.

Though Salgado was explicit that he disapproved of the way the union conducted its first organizing campaign—the organizers caricatured him as an evil boss, he says, solely to advance their strategy—he still feels the resulting unions, full of organized, passionate people, are no hindrance to excellence. “Unions ask a lot of questions! And that’s OK,” he says. “Critical questioning causes reflection and makes sure you have very good answers. And they demand transparency, and transparency is important. It’s a value that we should all have.”

To date, the best existing research suggests that charter unionization has very little impact on student achievement. Labor economist Aaron Sojourner and education policy researcher Cassandra Hart looked at California charters several years before unionization and then several years after; they found no significant difference in student performance over time, though there was a temporary dip during the initial unionization year, which tends to be a more disruptive period.

Moreover, as Potter and Kahlenberg document in A Smarter Charter, other research on unions and traditional public school performance suggests that unionization either has small positive effects or no measurable effects at all on the achievement of most students. “The research does not paint a picture of unions as an enemy to student achievement,” Kahlenberg and Potter conclude.

That said, there are other ways to think about the way a union might impact a school. Higher teacher salaries, more transparent pay scales, and greater control over working conditions may help attract more qualified candidates to teach. Research does show that increased teacher voice helps decrease teacher turnover, and it also shows that high teacher turnover costs schools millions of dollars, disrupts student learning, and weakens institutional capacity. Many objectives that teachers hope to achieve through unionization are grounded in a desire for greater stability. “We want to stick around, we want to see our freshman graduate, we want to see their siblings and cousins come, we want to make this our home,” says Apt, whose Olney Charter High School has had high teacher turnover from year to year.

IN RECENT YEARS, as growing numbers of charter school teachers have sought to unionize, both the AFT and the NEA have stepped up their efforts to organize them. Since 2009, the AFT has been flying teacher activists from across the country to meet one another, share stories, and strategize national campaigns. The most recent gathering—they usually last three days—took place in Washington, D.C., in April, and Swanson, Apt, and Baehrend were among the 40 teachers in attendance. “The fights are very similar, so what we see one employer do in Detroit, we wind up seeing in other parts of the country too,” says Shaun Richman, AFT’s deputy director of organizing. “Teachers get the opportunity to support each other, and to learn how to deal with circumstances that may arise at their schools later.”

Also in April, for the first time ever, the California Teachers Association (CTA), an NEA state affiliate, convened 65 charter educators from across the state. One California teacher in attendance was Jen Shilen, who teaches U.S. history, economics, and government at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), a network of 11 virtual charter schools for grades K–12. Shilen and others have been fighting for a CAVA union since December 2013. When their workload began to change rapidly and inexplicably, and their many attempts to raise concerns with management went nowhere, Shilen said, they reached out to CTA. CAVA declined to comment.

“Going to CTA’s conference was the first time I’ve gotten to meet other charter educators organizing and it was a major morale boost,” says Shilen, who rarely even sees her own coworkers, since virtual charter teachers work from home.

Teachers organizing at L.A.’s Alliance schools were also there, as were union members from Green Dot, another rapidly expanding charter chain in Los Angeles. Green Dot schools occupy a unique place in the charter world, since their original founder was interested in establishing a unionized workplace from the outset. In 2006, Green Dot management approached the United Teachers of Los Angeles about their teachers joining their union, but UTLA, then fully opposed to charter schools, rejected the offer. As a result, Green Dot educators unionized with CTA, and their union, the Asociación de Maestros Unidos (AMU), had a relatively unfriendly relationship with UTLA for the next several years.

This too is changing. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the UTLA president elected in April 2014, said that his union is now actively pursuing better relations with AMU. AMU in turn, has come out in strong public support not only for CAVA’s organizing drive (which would be with CTA) but also for Alliance’s. Salina Joiner, AMU’s president, says that her organization’s leadership is all “in support and we’ll do whatever we need to do,” adding that she would never work at a non-union charter school.

Real tensions remain surrounding AFT and NEA’s desire to both organize charter teachers and to politically rein in charter schools. Not all charter teachers who’d be interested in a union would support the Chicago ACTS resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. And not all would agree with teachers like Shilen, who lobbied this year at the State Capitol in Sacramento on behalf of California’s “Annenberg Package”—four bills to promote greater charter transparency and accountability.

Joiner feels that union political activity that attempts to limit charter schools’ funding or expansion is “disrespectful to our educators that teach at that school” and “an injustice to parents that want school choice.” Joiner attended the CTA’s gathering of California charter teachers in April, and said that at least the union is now starting to ask them for their input on charter legislation. To CTA’s credit, she thinks the conversation is “moving in a positive direction from what it was before,” but that charter union members “still have a lot to do around the NEA and AFT.”

As more charter schools continue to unionize, CTU Vice President Sharkey expects some charter enthusiasts will walk away. “At some point, charter school teachers will work with the same conditions and pay as all the other schools, and at that point it’s not clear that charters will be as exciting to the entrepreneurs and businessmen promoting them now,” he says.

Unionized charters are not a panacea. The UFT Charter School, which opened in Brooklyn in 2005, was a widely publicized K-12 charter experiment to be run by the New York City teachers union. The results of its elementary and middle schools were mostly abysmal, and they closed down in 2015. (The high school performed better and stayed open.) The Wall Street Journal editorial board triumphantly declared that this episode shows the failure of “union dominance” over American public education. However, they conspicuously made no mention of UFT’s other charter school, University Prep, which has been ranked among NYC’s best.

The Wall Street Journal would never write about University Prep because it “disrupts their narrative” about unions, says Randi Weingarten, the president of AFT. “Look, there is not one silver bullet but what unionization does is it gives teachers a choice and a voice.”

Asharg Molla has been working at the Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School ever since she started as a Los Angeles Teach For America corps member in 2009. She likes working for a charter organization, and believes in its mission of creating a small collaborative community where teachers, board members, and parents can all work together. “But that’s just not what it’s been,” she says sadly. While she speaks highly of her school, colleagues, and principals, she joined in with the Alliance cohort organizing for a union because, she says, she recognizes there are limits to what even a good principal can do within a big, fast-growing organization. She knows too many Alliance teachers who are afraid to speak up, lest they rock the boat and lose their job.

The campaign in Los Angeles is gaining steam. Since Molla and her colleagues went public in March, the number of teachers who have pledged support has more than doubled—146 teachers (out of the roughly 600 who work at Alliance schools) have now signed the public petition. But Alliance administrators and their allies are doubling down on their efforts to thwart unionization. Beginning in late May, the California Charter Schools Association started to pay Alliance alumni to call parents at home, in an effort to drum up opposition to a union.

I don’t want to work for a machine that just cares about the growth and expansion of the organization,” says Molla. “Although [fighting for a union] is not an easy process, and can be exhausting, it really just shows these large organizations that we are the ones who make up this organization and that there needs to be that balance of power.”

What Would a Sanders Administration Do on K-12 Education?

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 16, 2015.
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P
residential candidate Bernie Sanders has excited his base with some bold ideas surrounding higher education. He’s said college should be a right, that public universities should have free tuition, and that public universities should employ tenured or tenure-track faculty for at least 75 percent of instruction, as a way to reduce the growing dependence on cheap adjunct labor. But Sanders’ stances on K-12 issues—arguably more contentious topics for politicians to engage with compared to higher ed and universal pre-K—have garnered far less attention.

Here’s what we know so far:

1. He wants to roll back standardized testing, but still supports Common Core.

Sanders opposes the expansion of standardized testing we’ve seen through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); he argues that such tests narrow school curriculum and hurt student creativity and critical thinking. However, this past March he voted against an amendment that would have allowed states to opt-out of the Common Core standards without a federal penalty. The amendment also would have barred the federal government from “mandating, incentivizing, or coercing” states into adopting the standards.

2.  He supports expanding the school day and year.

Sanders is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and in 2011, he worked to raise support for expanding the school day and year. Citing research on “summer learning loss”—Sanders notes that low-income students stand to lose much of what they learn if they’re denied extra-curricular enrichment opportunities. He also secured more funding for after-school and summer learning opportunities in Vermont.

3. He wants to see teachers paid more, and is a defender of pensions.

Sanders believes all educators, from early childhood workers up to college instructors should be paid more. He said, “Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers. We have to get our priorities right.” And while he believes the public pension crisis “must be addressed” he is more interested in reigning in Wall Street to solve it than reducing retiree payments.

4. He opposes Big Money in politics, but has not taken a clear position on the role of Big Money in education.

Sanders has come out strongly against oil companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and other special interests that pour money into politics. Citing these groups as a threat to true democracy—he wants to overturn Citizens United and push for publicly funded elections.

However, whether he will bring the same critical rhetoric to the foundations, consultants, and hedge fund managers shaping education policy remains to be seen. As Anthony Cody, the co-founder of Network for Public Ed pointed out recently, Sanders has yet to speak very clearly on these issues, but his opposition to Big Money elsewhere leads one to think that it’s at least a reasonable possibility.

5. He wants to strengthen who can be considered a “highly qualified” teacher.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education honored Sanders in 2012 for his “outstanding support” for educator preparation programs. In 2011 he introduced the Assuring Successful Students through Effective Teaching Act, which would aim to strengthen the definition of what a “highly qualified” teacher is considered to be, and work to reduce the number of unqualified teachers working in needy schools.

6. He has an unclear position on charter schools, but opposes vouchers.

He voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998, but has not engaged much in the polarized charter debate since. Vermont is one of the few states that do not permit charter schools, in part because the Vermont public education system already allows for “school choice” in other ways. However, Sanders is a strong supporter of teacher unions and collective bargaining, so if he does come to back charters, his support is unlikely to be paired with the type of anti-union rhetoric common in the charter advocacy world.

He also opposes private school vouchers, favoring an expanded federal investment in public schools instead.

So we have some insights, but questions remain. Ultimately if Bernie Sanders wants to win over progressive liberals and campaign as a left alternative to Hillary Clinton, he’ll have to start speaking more explicitly about K-12 education in the coming months.