School Closures: A Blunt Instrument

Originally published in the Spring 2016 print issue of The American Prospect
—–

In 2013, citing a $1.4 billion deficit, Philadelphia’s state-run school commission voted to close 23 schools—nearly 10 percent of the city’s stock. The decision came after a three-hour meeting at district headquarters, where 500 community members protested outside and 19 were arrested for trying to block district officials from casting their votes. Amid the fiscal pressure from state budget cuts, declining student enrollment, charter-school growth, and federal incentives to shut down low-performing schools, the district assured the public that closures would help put the city back on track toward financial stability.

One of the shuttered schools was Edward Bok Technical High School, a towering eight-story building in South Philadelphia spanning 340,000 square feet, the horizontal length of nearly six football fields. Operating since 1938, Bok was one of the only schools to be entirely financed and constructed by the Public Works Administration. Students would graduate from the historic school with practical skills like carpentry, bricklaying, tailoring, hairdressing, plumbing, and as the decades went on, modern technology. And graduate they did—at the time of closure, Bok boasted a 30 percent–higher graduation rate than South Philadelphia High School, the nearby public school that had to absorb hundreds of Bok’s students.

The Bok building was assessed at $17.8 million, yet city officials sold it for just $2.1 million to Lindsey Scannapieco, the daughter of a local high-rise developer. On their website, BuildingBok.com, Scannapieco and her team envision repurposing the large Bok facility into “a new and innovative center for Philadelphia creatives and non-profits.” They describe the “unprecedented concentration of space” in the Bok building for “Do-It-Yourself innovators, artists, and entrepreneurs” to congregate.

In August 2015, Scannapieco launched Bok’s newest debut, a pop-up restaurant on the building’s eighth floor, which served French food, craft beers, and fine wines. The rooftop terrace was decorated with student chairs and other school-related items found inside the building. Young millennials dubbed the restaurant “Philly’s hottest new rooftop bar,” while longtime residents and educators called it “a sick joke.” Situated in a quickly gentrifying community where nearly 40 percent of families still have incomes of less than $35,000, there was little question about who would be sipping champagne and munching on steak tartare on Bok’s top floor.

When it comes to closing schools, Philadelphia is not alone. In urban districts across the United States—from Detroit to Newark to Oakland—communities are experiencing waves of controversial school closures as cash-strapped districts reckon with pinched budgets and changing politics.

The Chicago Board of Education voted to close 49 elementary schools in 2013—the largest mass school closing in American history. The board assured the distressed community that not only would the district save hundreds of millions of dollars, but students would also receive an improved and more efficient public education.

Yet three years later, Chicago residents are still reeling from the devastating closures—a policy decision that has not only failed to bring about notable academic gains, but has also destabilized communities, crippled small businesses, and weakened local property values. With the city struggling to sell or repurpose most of the closed schools, dozens of large buildings remain vacant, becoming targets of crime and vandalism throughout poor neighborhoods. “These schools went from being community anchors into actual dangerous spaces,” says Pauline Lipman, an education policy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

African Americans have been hit hardest by the school closings in Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. While black students were 40 percent of Chicago’s school district population in 2013, they made up 88 percent of those affected by the closures. In Philadelphia, black students made up 58 percent of the district, but 81 percent of those affected by closures. Closure proponents insist that shutting down schools and consolidating resources, though certainly upsetting, will ultimately enable districts to provide better and more equitable education. It’s easier to get more money into the classroom, the thinking goes, if unnecessary expenses can be eliminated. But many residents see that school closures have failed to yield significant cost savings. They also view closures as discriminatory—yet another chapter in the long history of harmful experiments deployed by governments on communities of color that strip them of their livelihood and dearest institutions.

Today “the pain is still so raw, it’s not business as usual,” Reverend Robert Jones told me, speaking inside the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, the oldest black grassroots center in Chicago. Indeed, threats of further closures have not abated since 2013. Jones was one of 12 local residents to go on a highly publicized hunger strike late last summer, starving himself for 34 days to prevent another beloved school from being shut down. Their dangerous efforts proved successful; the district reversed its decision and pledged to reopen Walter H. Dyett High School, located on the South Side of Chicago.

Rather than shutter schools, residents argue, districts should reinvest in them.

Rather than shutter schools, residents argue, districts should reinvest in them.They point to full-service community schools, a reform model that combines rigorous academics with wraparound services for children and families, as promising alternatives. The effort to fight back against school closures has grown more pronounced in recent years, as tens of thousands across the country begin to mobilize through legal and political channels to reclaim their neighborhood public schools.

TO TALK ABOUT SCHOOL CLOSURES, one must talk about school buildings. The average age of a U.S. public school facility is nearly 50 years old, and most require extensive rehab, repair, and renovation—particularly in cities. None of the school buildings constructed before World War II were designed for modern cooling and heating systems, and many schools built to educate baby boomers in the 1960s and 1970s were constructed hurriedly on the cheap. Studies find that poor and minority students attend the most dilapidated schools today.

But the federal government offers virtually no economic assistance to states and local districts trying to shoulder the costs of building repairs. And things don’t look much better on the state level, either. Jeff Vincent, the deputy director of the Center for Cities & Schools at University of California, Berkeley, says that state spending has failed to keep up with the needs in schools following the recession, leaving local districts to take on those capital costs even if they can’t afford to.

Despite contributing next to nothing toward school facility spending, the federal government encourages public-school closure and consolidation as a strategy to boost academic performance. Such school improvement interventions for “failing” schools began during the controversial No Child Left Behind era, but financial incentives to close schools and open charters really ramped up under the Obama administration.

“Our communities have been so demonized to the point that nobody thinks they’re good. But no, our institutions have been sabotaged,” says Jitu Brown, the executive director of Journey For Justice (J4J), an alliance formed in 2013 that connects grassroots youth and parents fighting back against school closures. “These districts—Newark, Chicago, Detroit—they all cry ‘broke’ as they shift major portions of their budget towards privatization while neglecting and starving neighborhood schools.”

Besides pointing to low performance, districts often justify closing schools on the basis of the facilities being “underutilized.” This refers to buildings deemed too large for the number of students enrolled, and thus too expensive for districts to operate. Critics of school closures say that how districts determine “utilization” insufficiently accounts for the variety of ways communities use and rely on school facilities. Moreover, Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, says that urban districts tend to “completely underestimate” how much space is needed for special education and early childhood learning.

“When you’re resource-starved, you tend to take a defensive approach,” says Ariel Bierbaum, a Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. “You’re in a crisis mode, you’re looking to balance your books, so you’re not necessarily thinking the most creatively” about how to use some of the seemingly excess facility space.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS HAVE ALWAYS impacted communities in ways that go beyond just educating young people. Well-maintained school facilities can help revitalize struggling neighborhoods, just as decrepit buildings can hurt them. And whether it’s attracting businesses and workers into the area, directly affecting local property values, or just generally enhancing neighborhood vitality by creating centralized spaces for civic life, research has long demonstrated the influential role schools play within communities.

Yet most existing research on school closures has failed to explore the ways in which shuttering schools impacts these civic spheres; instead researchers have adopted a narrower focus on how school closures impact school district budgets and student academic achievement. On both of these fronts, though, the record has not been impressive.

Researchers find that what districts promise to students, staff, and taxpayers when preparing to close schools differs considerably from what actually happens when they close. For example, most students who went to schools that were closed down in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Newark—whether for fiscal reasons or for low academic performance—were transferred to schools that were not much better, and in some cases even worse, than the ones they left. In Chicago, for example, 87.5 percent of students affected by closures did not move to significantly higher-performing schools. Children also frequently encounter bullying and violence at their new schools, while teachers are often unprepared to handle the influx of new students.

Moving students around can negatively impact student achievement, and closures exacerbate such mobility. In some cities, students have been bumped around two, three, four times—as their new schools were eventually slated for closure, too.

Not all research casts school closures in a uniformly negative light. One study found that New York City school closures had little impact—positive or negative—on students’ academic performance at the time the schools were shut down, yet “future students”—meaning those who had been on track to attend those schools before they closed—demonstrated “meaningful benefits” from attending new schools. Another study found that while most children experienced negative effects on their academic achievement during the year they transitioned to new schools, such negative effects were impermanent, and student performance rebounded to similar rates as their unaffected peers the following year. Essentially, researchers find that there can be substantial positive effects if students are sent to much better schools than they ones they left; however, the reality is that most students do not go to such schools.

In addition to overselling academic gains, districts also tend to overstate how much money they’ll save from shutting down schools. When Washington, D.C., closed down 23 schools in 2008, the district reported it would cost them $9.7 million. A 2012 audit found the price was actually nearly $40 million after taking into account the cost of demolishing buildings, transporting students, and the lost value of the buildings, among other factors. Another study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2011 found that cost savings are generally limited, at least in the short term, and such savings come largely through mass employee layoffs.

Bierbaum, however, has been studying Philadelphia’s school closures from a broader community-development and urban-planning perspective to understand how school closures, sales, and reuses are related to larger issues of metropolitan-wide racial and class inequality. This means examining school closures in the context of neighborhood change, like gentrification or disinvestment, and in relationship to the city plans and policies that help facilitate that change.

In some cases, Bierbaum says that residents feel closures are “necessary” responses to dramatic demographic shifts, even if “draconian”; city officials are “doing the best they can to deal with things out of their control” in terms of fiscal management, she says. But in other cases, residents see closures as yet another manifestation of systemic oppression, closely related to other kinds of disinvestment within neighborhoods. “In this way, not only closures but also school building disposition is actually experienced as dispossession,” Bierbaum explains.

A majority of closed schools are converted into charter schools, with a second significant chunk repurposed into residential apartments. Other buildings are demolished or left vacant. Interviews with experts in several cities reveal that school district officials have not prioritized urban-planning questions, like those Bierbaum is asking, when deciding whether to close schools.

Clarice Berry, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association and member of a state legislative task force focused on Chicago school facilities, says the Chicago public school district was simply uninterested in discussing those sorts of civic topics. “At no time have they wanted to study that, or even been interested in discussing it,” she says. “The district spends all their time trying to keep us from getting data [on school closures] that could show us how they could make improvements.” While the task force has repeatedly asked the district to track kids who have been shuffled around from school to school, by and large Chicago and other urban districts have not carefully tracked how school closures have impacted students, families, and communities.

SHORTLY AFTER J4J BEGAN ORGANIZING, another network formed—the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS)—comprising ten national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and J4J. Through weekly email newsletters and support for on-the-ground organizing, AROS has helped mobilize individuals looking to fight for public education. Parents and community groups hope they can agitate districts to think creatively about facility space, and invest more in neighborhood schools.

In mid-February, AROS helped stage the first-ever national day of “walk-ins,” where students, teachers, and parents at 900 schools in 30 cities across the country rallied in support of increased school funding, local schools with wraparound services, charter school accountability, and an end to harsh discipline policies, among other demands.

Their action built on momentum that’s been brewing over the past two years around the idea of “full-service community schools,” or schools that offer not only academics but also medical care, child care, job training, counseling, early college partnerships, and other types of social supports. This school model, which dates back more than a century, can be particularly beneficial for low-income residents who face challenges like accessing transportation.

In February, the Center for Popular Democracy released a report on the roughly 5,000 self-identified community schools across the country, lifting up particularly successful examples and offering strategies on how to replicate their success. One such school was Reagan High School, a poor and minority school in northeast Austin, Texas, which adopted a community schools strategy five years ago. In 2008, the local district was threatening to close Reagan due to its declining enrollment and its below–50 percent graduation rate. Parents, students, and teachers began organizing around a community schools plan to save Reagan from closure, and the district gave them permission to give it a shot. After expanding supportive services, like mobile health clinics and parenting classes, after changing its approach to discipline, and after expanding after-school activities, among other things, graduation rates at Reagan have now increased to 85 percent, enrollment has more than doubled, and a new Early College High School program has enabled many Reagan students to earn their associate’s degree before they graduate.

Implementing community schools can be difficult, particularly to the extent that it requires schools to adopt joint-use policies so that facility space can be shared with other public agencies and nonprofits, many of which have no prior experience working together. Some states and local districts have been much more amenable to these types of partnerships than others. “Yes, there’s complexity. But my response is ‘welcome to modern life.’ Stop whining, we know we can do this,” says Filardo of 21st Century School Fund.

Political support for full-service community schools is also on the rise.Philadelphia’s new mayor, Jim Kenney, has pledged to create 25 new community schools by the end of his first term. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio aims to create 200 community schools during his tenure. The new federal education bill passed in December even authorizes grant-funding for community schools, which has incentivized many other cities and states to begin thinking about how to take advantage of this opportunity.

I sat down with Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, a member of Newark’s elected advisory school board, to learn more about her interest in expanding community schools. With more than one-third of Newark’s children living in poverty, Baskerville-Richardson says local leaders have been looking for ways to address the harms of poverty while also supporting student achievement and school success. After five years of controversial education reforms pushed by Republican governor Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent, Baskerville-Richardson says the Newark community is just plain tired.

“There was a period when all our efforts were basically just fighting against these reforms being imposed on our communities,” she explains. “At the same time, we realized that the conversation could not just be about what we were against, and we had to mobilize around what we were for.” And so, a little over two years ago, public school leaders and local advocates began to really home in on the idea of full-service community schools.

“We began to do a lot of research, we got in touch with experts, talked with people from the Center for Popular Democracy, the Children’s Aid Society, and people involved on the national level,” Baskerville-Richardson recalls. “We also started visiting community schools like in Paterson, New Jersey—which is also a state-controlled district—[and] in Orange, New Jersey, which has similar demographics as ours. We visited Baltimore, New York City; some of our people visited Cincinnati; we talked to people in Tulsa, Oklahoma. … We’re really looking to dig into a model that has been proven to work.” Starting in the fall of 2016, five full-service community schools are set to open up in Newark’s South Ward, its poorest area.

ON THE 60TH ANNIVERSARY OF Brown v. Board of Education in 2014, parents and community organizations in New Orleans, Chicago, and Newark filed federal complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They alleged that school closures in their cities have had a racially discriminatory impact on children and communities of color. The groups received legal assistance from the Advancement Project, a civil-rights organization.

Jadine Johnson, an attorney with the Advancement Project, says they chose to file Title VI complaints because they wanted to raise disparate impact claims. “When districts are making these decisions they don’t say ‘we’ll close black and Latino schools.’ They’ll say ‘we’ll close schools that are under-enrolled or under-achieving,’” she says. “But those decisions can still have discriminatory effects on black and brown students.” In Newark, for example, during the 2012–2013 school year, white students were nearly 20 times less likely than black students to be affected by school closures, despite what would be predicted given their proportions of student enrollment.

Ariel Bierbaum says her field research demonstrated that many Philadelphians understood school closures as symbols of continued and consistent disrespect and disinvestment for poor communities of color. “Many of my interviewees tied school closures to urban renewal, to their parents’ experience, … [to] the Jim Crow south and migrating north,” a legacy that dates back to slavery, she says. “For them, these closures are not a ‘rational’ policy intervention to address a current fiscal crisis. School closures are situated in a much longer historical trajectory of discriminatory policymaking in the United States.”

J4J has also helped to bring a racial-justice lens to the school-closure conversation, namely by forcing the public to discuss it within the context of discrimination, segregation, underfunding, and marginalization—both inside and outside of schools. In some respects, there’s a seeming irony around efforts to save schools in poor and racially segregated neighborhoods—these are the same schools that were treated as expendable during the desegregation era. But residents understand that their schools aren’t closing for integration purposes, and if one looks closer, it is clear that aims to create more diverse neighborhood schools are still very much on the table.

In December, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education reached a groundbreaking resolution with Newark Public Schools to aid those who may have been negatively impacted by Newark’s closures. Johnson, the Advancement Project attorney, says she believes the Newark OCR resolution “sends a loud message” to school districts that may be considering similar types of school closures. “We see this [as] a multi-year strategy,” she explains. “This resolution is hopefully the first of many agreements, and the first step to sounding the alarm for why public schools should remain public.”

Meeting with some parent activists who helped to file the Newark Title VI complaint, I wanted to see how they were feeling about the OCR resolution. Sharon Smith, the founder of Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSENJ), thinks that irrespective of whatever remedies their superintendent proposes, it will take generations until Newark’s South Ward heals.

“It’s always very scary to me when people who are guilty of something, like the district is, say ‘Yes, we are guilty, but we’re going to fix this our own way without the input of the people who were hurt,’” says Darren Martin, another parent involved with PULSENJ. “We’re happy the OCR took our complaint seriously, but it feels almost like the police are policing themselves. How do you allow the person who helped design all these destructive policies [to] also design the remedy?”

IN FEBRUARY, I VISITED KELLY HIGH SCHOOL, a full-service community school on the southwest side of Chicago, serving a student body that’s more than 90 percent low-income. Kelly used to draw a large Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian population, but now predominately serves Hispanic students. With the help of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, a local community organization, Kelly offers all sorts of programs for parents and children, ranging from tax-prep classes and English-language instruction, to tutoring and political organizing. The academic improvement Kelly students have shown over the past decade has also been substantial—targeted interventions have helped more at-risk students stay on track to graduate, and the school is now ranked as a Level 2+ in the district’s rating system—where the highest possible score is a 1+ and the lowest is a 3.

But Kelly’s progress, both academically and as a civic institution, is threatened by increasing budget cuts, declining student enrollment, and the growth of charter schools in the surrounding area. In July 2015, the Noble Network of Charter Schools, the largest charter chain in Chicago, submitted a proposal to open a new high school a few blocks away from Kelly. Students, parents, and teachers began mobilizing against the proposal, concerned that this new project would siphon even more resources from their already-pinched school, which had been forced to slash programs and teaching positions over the last few years. In October, 1,000 Kelly High School students walked out of class to protest the proposed new school. Yet despite overwhelming local opposition, the unelected Chicago Board of Education voted unanimously to open the new charter.

It’s possible that over the next few years, Kelly High School’s fiscal strain will become just too much to manage, and the school will be slated for closure, too. “The narrative to close schools is essentially a budget one, which can be extremely powerful,” says Filardo. Even if the budget savings turn out to be fairly small, or nonexistent.

One way to reduce budgetary pressures on schools, thereby helping prevent school closures, would be for states and the federal government to pay more, particularly toward local capital budgets. Decades of social-science research have shown how unsafe and inadequate school facilities can negatively affect students’ academic performance—particularly when a school has poor temperature control, poor indoor air quality, and poor lighting. Researchers also find that the higher the percentage of low-income students in a district, the less money a district spends on the capital investments needed to keep school facilities in good repair. The most disadvantaged students tend to receive about half the funding for school buildings as their wealthier peers. And often, low-wealth districts spend more from their operating budgets on facilities—paying for large utility bills, more demanding maintenance for old systems, and the high costs of emergency repairs. It’s not a coincidence that affluent communities invest more in their public school buildings. “They improve and enhance their school facilities because it matters to the quality of education, to the strength of their community, and the achievement and well-being of their children and teachers,” says Filardo.

In other words, increasing state and federal spending could both help struggling urban schools, and also help fortify communities more broadly. Filardo thinks districts should be able to leverage up to 10 percent of their Title I funds to help pay for capital expenses—right now, Title I funds can only go toward local operating spending. Or, even better, Filardo thinks the federal government should start contributing at least 10 percent toward district capital budgets, just as it contributes 10 percent to district operating budgets.

“Schools belong to the entire community, and it should be the state and federal government’s job to find the right policy levers so that we can really advance our educational and economic development together in the best, most equitable way,” she says.

Battles about how best to save and improve public education are sure to intensify in the coming months and years. No researcher has been able to conclusively say what the optimal policy intervention is for students in terms of boosting academic achievement. And some individuals are certainly more sympathetic to closing schools, particularly if it means their children could attend higher-performing district schools or charters. Even on the question of school governance, researchers have reached no clear consensus on whether state takeovers or local control is better for student outcomes or fiscal management. Nevertheless, there’s consensus that any system which generates uncertainty and distrust is a recipe for disaster.

Reflecting on the past four years in her city, Lauren Wells, the chief education officer for Newark Public Schools, notes that reform-minded leaders expanded charter schools quickly without really taking into account the impact such decisions would have on existing schools. A recent report from the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy group, found that the combination of the state’s refusal to adequately fund New Jersey’s school aid formula, coupled with rapid charter-school growth, has placed tremendous strain on district finances, forcing Newark to make significant cuts to district programming and staff. “We really want to move the conversation away from charters versus district schools,” Wells says. “We’re trying instead to build a coalition around this idea that we are the guardians of all children. That should be the basis of any decision that we make.”

 

Outsourcing Substitute Teachers in Philadelphia Gets Off to a Bad Start

Originally published on The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on September 11, 2015.
——
Last spring, officials from the Philadelphia School District announced plans to contract out substitute-teaching services, saying they could not effectively manage the responsibilities in-house. At the time, approximately 60 percent of substitute teaching jobs were filled daily, and officials said a private vendor would be able to fill more open positions. Naomi Wyatt, the chief talent officer for Philly public schools, said they paid more than $18.6 million annually for substitute teaching expenses, including reimbursement costs for traditional teachers who fill in when subs cannot be found.

The announcement effectively meant that the district would seek to use non-unionized substitute teachers that they could pay at “market-rate.” It eventually hired Source4Teachers, a New Jersey-based company that provides schools with substitute teachers, substitute paraprofessionals, and substitute support staff. The company works in nearly 200 districts throughout the U.S. and dozens locally, but Philadelphia School District is its largest client.

Though the cash-strapped urban district denied they were contracting out to save costs, the pay differences for substitutes between last year and this year are substantial. Source4Teachers pays between $75 and $90 per day for uncertified substitutes, and $90 to $110 for credentialed ones. By contrast, the district had paid $126.76 for uncertified substitutes, and $160.10 for credentialed ones. The biggest difference is for retired substitutes: the district had paid retired subs up to $242 daily, depending on their educational degrees and college credits; under Source4Teachers, retired educators receive the same rate of pay as all other teachers.

“They assured the teachers that their pay would be ‘similar’, that was the word they used,” said retired teacher Kenneth Schamberg to The Philadelphia Inquirer in July. “Since when is a 61.9 percent pay cut similar?”

The new academic school year started this week, and The Inquirer reported today that Source4Teachers is off to an embarrassing start. On the first day of school, it had filled only 11 percent of open substitute teaching positions, which meant 477 city classrooms did not have teachers. The rate and number of vacancies were roughly the same on Wednesday and Thursday, too.

Owen Murphy, a spokesperson for Source4Teachers, said they hope their “learning curve will soon go away” and that they will produce more teachers fast. So far, the firm has just 300 workers credentialed and ready to take on substitute teaching jobs, but Murphy says hundreds more are currently in the midst of applying. He also said he expected far more substitutes who worked for the district last year to apply to work with Source4Teachers, but so far that hasn’t happened. They hope to eventually have a pool of 5,000 substitutes ready to call on for work.

Wyatt said that other big urban districts like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit also outsource substitute-teaching services.

The president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Jerry Jordan, suggested that district officials intentionally manufactured a substitute teaching shortage in order to outsource the jobs. He referenced a 2012 Boston Consulting Group report that recommended privatizing the positions. Jordan told The Notebook, a non-profit education news site in Philadelphia, that he knew of qualified substitute teachers who were not called in to work.

“It’s unclear how much money this move will save the School District. But we have no doubt that this will have a tremendous negative impact on educator morale, which is already at an all-time low in Philadelphia,” Jordan wrote. “These are the kinds of actions that, in the long run, will severely compromise the ability of our educators to create positive learning environments for our children.”

When Charters Go Union

Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of  The American Prospect
——–

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.”

The Uphill Battle of Unionizing a Philly Charter School

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 4th, 2015.
—————
O
n April 30th, faculty at North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted 104-38 in favor of forming a union, an NLRB election that Olney’s charter operator, ASPIRA, has since announced they’re challenging. Olney’s union campaign is only the latest in a small but rapidly growing wave of charter union drives nationwide. But few efforts have been as contentious, or as revealing, as this one. Ever since the campaign began three years ago, ASPIRA has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into an elaborate union-busting effort, even as the beleaguered district it’s funded by struggles with massive debt. Unionizing Olney also threatens to shine light on ASPIRA’s questionable finances, at a time when authorities at the state and district level have failed to act. More broadly, the union drive in Philadelphia reveals how charter management organizations can use lax regulation to dodge financial accountability.

ASPIRA took over Olney, along with John B. Stetson Middle School in 2011 through Philadelphia’s “renaissance” school turnaround project, whereby charter operators are given the opportunity to improve the academic performance of struggling district schools. As part of the renaissance conversion, remaining educators at Olney and Stetson lost their union membership.

It wasn’t easy for Olney staff to reach their April 30th election; for the past three years they have dealt with an administration intent on suppressing union organizing efforts. Tactics have included threatening teachers with layoffs and cuts to benefits, putting anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, and instating new discipline policies, which included barring employees from criticizing ASPIRA on social media. The NLRB sided with educators in three of the four unfair labor practice complaints they filed in response to these measures.

Other tactics that have garnered criticism, including from Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez—who once served as ASPIRA’s Executive Director—relate to services ASPIRA has employed, with public dollars, to fight the union effort. In August 2014, Philadelphia City Paper reported that ASPIRA paid a law firm with experience in fighting unionization efforts at least $72,163. This past April, the chair of the Olney school board signed a contract with consultants to lead self-described “union avoidance” meetings for Olney staff, as well as to help ASPIRA design and implement a campaign to fight unionization. The cost for these consultants was $25,000 and the contract stipulated that that figure “does not include any time that may be spent in responding or defending any charges filed by the union at the NLRB.”

Stetson educators recently launched their own organizing drive, and ASPIRA is sending consultants and lawyers there, too. Moreover, ASPIRA sent their consultants to lead a mandatory meeting at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School, another one of ASPIRA’s five charters, to reportedly “pre-empt an organizing effort.”

The budget problems plaguing Philadelphia public schools have forced the district to close dozens of schools, to lay off thousands of workers, to reduce transportation services, and more. How then, do we get to a point where charters are able to spend such significant sums of public dollars to fight union efforts? Who, if anyone, gets to have a say?

Are Charter Employees Public or Private?

Charters, which have been around for a quarter century, are publicly funded but independently managed schools. In education circles there’s a fierce debate over whether these schools are truly “public”—charter proponents insist that they are, while others see charters as a means to privatize education.

Aside from whether charter schools are public or private, another question is whether charter school employees are public or private—important distinctions not only for union formation but also for labor rights more broadly. The courts have taken the position that there is no clear-cut answer for charter employees, and each situation must be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on individual state laws and regulations, as well as the composition of each charter organization. But in one significant case from 2012, the NLRB ruled that educators at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy Charter School (CMSA) were private employees mainly because no government entity has the authority to appoint or remove CMSA board members, and no board members are directly accountable to public officials. In 2013, citing the CMSA ruling, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board effectively disclaimed jurisdiction over charter labor disputes in the state, concluding that such matters should be dealt with at the NLRB.

Which brings us back to Olney and Stetson. Despite previously stating that it would respect the results of an NLRB election, ASPIRA now claims Olney teachers are in fact public employees, and thus not subject to the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Stetson educators also recently filed for their own union election and ASPIRA challenged them, too. While the NLRB held a regional hearing and determined that Stetson educators are in fact covered under the NLRB, no determination has yet been made for Olney educators. However, since the legal arguments are the same for both renaissance schools, one can assume that the NLRB will ultimately uphold jurisdiction.

Many view ASPIRA’s NLRB challenge as a stalling tactic, but their action is not illegal. Wilma Liebman, a former chairman of the NLRB, told me that jurisdiction challenges are permitted at any stage of the election process. But considering that ASPIRA has not dropped their Olney challenge despite losing their Stetson one, many wonder how far ASPIRA will go before they agree to collectively bargain, and how expensive the legal bills are going to be.

In theory, if the regional NLRB rules in favor of Olney educators, ASPIRA could appeal to the national NLRB board in Washington, D.C. If ASPIRA loses all possible appeals, and they still refuse to bargain, then the NLRB will have to take them to District Court. Such cases are extremely expensive. “If they still refuse to bargain past a District Court ruling, then they’d be found in contempt,” said Liebman.

Other Questionable ASPIRA Expenditures

One reason ASPIRA so staunchly opposes unionization may be that the collective bargaining process could shed light on the organization’s suspicious finances.

One reason ASPIRA so staunchly opposes unionization may be that the collective bargaining process could shed light on the organization’s suspicious finances. Over the past several years, evidence suggests that ASPIRA has engaged in other instances of questionable financial behavior. The Philadelphia Daily News found that ASPIRA has borrowed nearly $3.5 million from its charter schools, though the public doesn’t know where that money went. Journalists also found that school staff used debit cards without providing receipts, and that bank loans were signed where one charter school would guarantee the debt of another. Under the law, each charter is supposed to function as an independent entity.

Lauren Thum of the Philadelphia School District’s Charter Office told Newsworks that the district couldn’t confirm whether ASPIRA is spending its charter school dollars in the schools themselves, or whether money is being siphoned off for other things. Part of the complication stems from the fact that although each of ASPIRA’s five charters is organized as an independent nonprofit, they all share the same board of trustees through their parent organization, ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. And although the school district worries that ASPIRA charters may be improperly shuffling money around, they have thus far been denied access to the parent organization’s financial records. “It’s very difficult to follow the financial trail when there are so many complicated, connected entitles, and money flowing throughout them,” Thum said. In the meantime, ASPIRA continues to deny any financial wrongdoing. ASPIRA also declined to be interviewed and several school board members did not return requests for comment.

In 2010, the Philadelphia City Controller released a report criticizing a practice common amongst Philly charters whereby the schools use public funds to pay rent to parent organizations or subsidiaries; this is what ASPIRA does with ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. “Properties that are being paid for with taxpayer funds are being either transferred [to] or controlled by nonprofits with no accountability to the school district or taxpayers,” the report concluded. However, five years later, the practice continues.

Under the law, unions are entitled to see the financial information that pertains to their bargaining unit. (This includes things like health insurance costs, salaries, etc.) And if during negotiations management shoots down a union’s proposal by claiming they have an inability to pay, then the union is legally entitled to access more financial information to verify management’s claim. “In my opinion, I think the real issue is ASPIRA doesn’t want a union poking around in their finances,” a Philadelphia School District official told me. “Having a union gives them the right to do that in order to bargain in good faith, and [ASPIRA] doesn’t want anyone looking at anything.”

And so far, no one really has. As millions of dollars move around between the charter schools, the parent organization, and ASPIRA’s two property-management entities, the school district’s ability to challenge ASPIRA’s financial behavior remains unclear. In January, the district sent a letter to ASPIRA outlining 17 conditions the nonprofit would need to meet if they want to have their Stetson charter renewed. Conditions include reorganizing Stetson’s school board so that the parent organization doesn’t directly control it and getting a treasurer with a background in finances and audits.

Since then, ASPIRA has complied with some of the district’s requests, and has challenged others. Notably, they have so far refused to provide access to relevant financial information of its parent organization, though conversations between ASPIRA and the district are still ongoing.

“Nobody has enough power or enough money to really stay on top of things, so it becomes really easy for things to end up in a big mess,” said Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple University Law School professor who studies Pennsylvania charter law. “I frankly don’t think the state legislature thought ahead about the financial ramifications in any serious way. It’s [as] if everyone thought ‘oh this is a great idea, oh there will be cool new schools.’”

A Need for Greater Oversight

ASPIRA’s accountability problem is similar at the district level. “We just don’t have time right now to oversee [all that] we’re supposed to oversee,” the Philadelphia district official told me, who added that they need far more resources and manpower to do comprehensive charter investigations. And, as the situation with ASPIRA suggests, perhaps school districts need to be granted explicitly clearer legal authority to track where charter dollars go. Though charters are premised on a model of increased accountability, the public, as it stands, is unable to hold these schools accountable.

Beyond tracking the unclear money, what about the costs that are clear, like the lawyers and consultants? When I asked David Lapp, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center whether the school district could protest ASPIRA spending public dollars to fight a union he said it would be unusual, though not necessarily illegal. “Generally speaking, the charter authorizer, which in Pennsylvania is the school district, has the general duty to oversee that charter schools are following the law,” he said. “I’ve never seen a school district give any sort of opinion to a charter school about labor law issues, but whether they could seems to be an open question.”

Regardless, as ASPIRA will find, there’s only so long that an employer can delay negotiating with a staff that’s committed to forming a union.

Teaching Character: Grit, Privilege, and American Education’s Obsession with Novelty

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 17th, 2015.
————————-

Twice a week for 30 minutes, fifth graders at KIPP Washington Heights, a charter school in New York City, attend “character class.” Each lesson is divided into three parts, according to Ian Willey, the assistant principal who teaches it. First, students find out what specific skill they’ll be focusing on that day. “This morning we’re going to learn how to set a long-term goal,” Willey might tell them. Next, students are asked to practice the skill. In this case, students may imagine they have a long-term project to complete, and then work to construct a timeline with incremental deadlines. In the final part of the lesson, students would take time to collectively reflect. “What was hard about this exercise?” Willey might ask. “What went well? Did anyone feel nervous? What did you do when you felt nervous?” And because part of KIPP’s mission is to help build character, the students would then classify their new skill as one or more of KIPP’s seven targeted character goals. In this example, the students were learning “grit.”

Few ideas inspire more debate in education circles than grit, which means having dedication to and passion for long-term goals. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, first popularized the concept in 2007; she believes that if we can teach children to be “grittier” in schools, we can help them achieve greater success. Paul Tough, a journalist who published a 2012 bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, also brought grit into the national spotlight. Many policymakers and school leaders have since jumped at the idea. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Tough’s “fantastic book”—arguing that teaching skills like grit “can help children flourish and overcome significant challenges throughout their lifetimes.” Districts all over the country are exploring how they can incorporate grit into their curriculum. In 2013, Duckworth was awarded $625,000 by the MacArthur Foundation to continue researching ways to cultivate grit in schools.

Despite grit’s enthusiastic boosters, a growing movement has sprung up in opposition. Some psychologists and policy analysts question the methodology behind Duckworth’s research—which has chiefly relied on students answering questionnaires on how gritty they think they’ve been. (For example, a survey question might read: “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” and students would report how much that statement resonates with them.) Some critics argue that grit places too much weight on individual student behavior, and as a result, crucial attention is directed away from the structural forces that inhibit academic success. Some researchers think that emphasizing grit can even produce negative outcomes, like killing creativity.

The excitement towards and resistance to this new field illuminates a great deal more about American education and its obsession with novelty than the grit research itself—which is still in its infancy.

The Background on Grit

Grit researchers begin with the conviction that grit is malleable: They believe that if we could design the right interventions, we could probably increase students’ grit levels, too. Duckworth admires the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist whose research on “academic tenacity”—a mindset that helps students focus on and persevere towards long-term goals—suggests that cultivating grit may be possible. Grit research also builds on the work of Martin Seligman, who pioneered the field of positive psychology, focused on positive human flourishing. Duckworth is Seligman’s former student.

Schools, politicians, and news organizations have embraced grit, excited by its possible implications. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about grit’s potential. KIPP charter schools, like the one Ian Willey works for, have incorporated inculcating grit and other “character strengths” such as optimism, self-control and gratitude into their mission statement. In 2013, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a global education organization, published a book entitled “Fostering Grit.”

Dan McGarry, an Assistant Superintendent for Upper Darby School District—located in a township adjacent to West Philadelphia—read about Duckworth’s work in 2011 and grew fascinated by character education. “I truly believe that this is going to change the world,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. His district has since formally partnered with Duckworth’s lab, allowing Penn researchers to both provide professional development to their staff and conduct experiments on their students. McGarry hopes that teaching character will reduce discipline problems and raise student achievement.

Backlash

Advocates insist that the benefits of teaching grit are just as important for affluent kids growing up in hypercompetitive communities as they are for low-income students growing up in poverty. Yet as grit hype grows, critics have started speaking out against what they see as an attempt to gloss over the uniquely debilitating effects of poverty. Paul L. Thomas, an education professor at Furman University, argues that reformers have embraced grit precisely because it presents them an opportunity to ignore material solutions. Indeed, in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough wrote, “There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths … [such as] conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.” 

David Meketon, a research liaison from the Duckworth Lab, acknowledges that social class impacts everyone throughout their lives. But “we think our work and understanding can help mitigate those possible preconditions,” he says.

Eldar Shafir, a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton is skeptical that teaching grit can diminish the effects of poverty. He recently co-authored an influential book with Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, on “scarcity”—which is the psychological effect of struggling to manage with less than you need. “I have no problem with the idea that whoever you are, having grit will be better than not having grit,” Shafir says. “But my intuition is that the kinds of problems that are so pressing that it’s very hard to put them out of your mind, like whether or not you will have food to eat, or whether your parent is going to prison or will lose their job, those stresses are much harder to ignore than the stresses facing the affluent, like which prestigious college will you go to.”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered.

I asked Dr. Shafir what he thought about teaching students yoga and mindfulness—popular ideas that the Duckworth Lab and other proponents of grit are exploring. “To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered. “I think the impact of giving kids after school programs, transportation, and childcare for their parents would be much greater than trying to figure out how to include meditation in schools.” 

In late January, some progressive educators discussed the racial implications of grit at “EduCon 2.7,” a Philadelphia-based conference designed to explore digital learning. (The panel was called “Grit, Galton, Eugenics, Racism, Calvinism.”) “We keep [hearing] this narrative that the only way children in poverty are going to succeed is by working harder than their peers who are middle-class,” said Pamela Moran, a superintendent of a large public school district in Virginia. “We have to think about our own cultural biases, why grit appeals to us, and why we want to focus on it in our schools.”

Jeff Snyder, an education historian at Carleton College, thinks that while it’s “patently absurd” to argue—as some of his colleagues do—that teaching grit is inherently racist, there are some problems with how it is being applied in the real world. “[KIPP co-founder Dave] Levin, Duckworth, they all say that character education should be for everyone. But the way that it turns out is that KIPP-based character education is overwhelmingly for poor kids of color,” says Snyder. Referring to the “culture of poverty thesis”—the controversial idea that the urban poor are disadvantaged not due to racism and discrimination but because they harbor certain cultural pathologies—Snyder says it’s understandable that people would resist a new theory that seems to suggest academic failure is rooted in individual behavior. 

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of grit culture is Alfie Kohn, an education writer who published The Myth Of The Spoiled Child in 2014. “There is no pretense of objectivity in [Duckworth’s] work; [she] is selling grit rather than dispassionately investigating its effects,” Kohn writes. “Proponents of grit tend to focus narrowly on behavior, ignoring motive,” he adds. “Do kids love what they’re doing? Or are they driven by a desperate (and anxiety-provoking) need to prove their competence? As long as they’re pushing themselves, we’re encouraged to nod our approval.”

Ironically, Kohn and Duckworth both insist they are looking out for “the whole child”—the idea that schools should not just be for children’s academic development, but for their moral, social, and physical development as well. “If we’re interested in the whole child—if, for example, we’d like our students to be psychologically healthy—then it’s not at all clear that self-discipline should enjoy a privileged status compared to other attributes. In some contexts, it may not be desirable at all,” Kohn argues. In an interview with ASCD, Duckworth says, “standardized tests … are limited in their ability to pick up things like grit and self-control … gratitude, honesty, generosity, empathy for the suffering of others, social intelligence, tact, charisma. … We’re now seeing a pendulum swing away from the single-minded focus on standardized testing and toward a broader view of the whole child.”

Is Grit Science Reliable?

In 2012, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Schools Research published a comprehensive literature review detailing all the existing evidence on how these “non-cognitive factors” like grit, motivation, and perseverance shape school performance. They found that most of the existing research is correlational, not causal—making it unclear the extent to which these factors can be developed in classrooms, and raising questions about whether changing them would actually even improve school performance. They also found little evidence to suggest that improving students’ academic behavior would narrow racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

One criticism of grit research is that it has relied mostly on the students’ self-reported questionnaires and surveys. Two sets of problems accompany these measures—one is “social desirability bias” and the other is “reference bias.” The former is a well-documented phenomenon where people tend to inaccurately report their experiences or memories on surveys in order to present themselves in the best possible light. They seek to present themselves in a socially desirable way, thus skewing the results. “Reference bias” is a less obvious issue, but perhaps more detrimental. To answer a survey question that asks “Are you a hard worker?” you’d typically conjure up an image of what you envision hard workers look like, and then compare yourself to them. “Am I hard worker compared to the other kids in my class?” you might ask. In effect, the results of these surveys can tell us very little about how you’ll do compared to people outside of your own peer group.

Martin R. West, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has been researching the limitations of self-reported assessments, and finds evidence that the school climate in which a student answers these questions can significantly affect what answer they will give. “In a rush to embrace non-cognitive skills as the missing piece in American education, policymakers may overlook the limitations of extant measures,” West writes, urging researchers to develop alternatives that are valid across a broader range of settings. The Duckworth Lab’s Meketon says his team is now focusing on creating more activity-based tests, such as computer games, in the hope that this will ameliorate some of the concerns people have about the lab’s surveys and questionnaires.  

Avi Kaplan, a psychology professor at Temple University who studies student motivation and self-regulation, finds the public rhetoric around grit research to be extremely political. “Grit is a paradigm that gives people certainty, and that’s what people are looking for—absolute truth.” He argues that there have always been those in his field who aspire, mistakenly, to treat psychology like a natural science. “But human beings are all so different, and people develop and change at such different points in their lives.”

Education Policy’s Ebb and Flow

This is not the first time we’ve recognized that success is not exclusively about IQ or raw talent. In 1961, psychological theorist David McClelland published The Achieving Society, which argued that cultivating the need for achievement, often through early childhood experiences, plays an integral role in one’s chance for life success. In 1990, journalist Dan Goldman published Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ, which argued that self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved are the greatest indicators of success.

This is not even the first time our country has tried to teach character or seen it as integral to education—far from it. Writing in The New Republic, Snyder of Carleton College traces the history:

From the inception of our public school system in the 1840s and 1850s, character education has revolved around religious and civic virtues. Steeped in Protestantism and republicanism, the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” As an influential 1918 report on “moral values” put it, character education “makes for a better America by helping its pupils to make themselves better persons.” In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas.

With this in mind, the discussion around grit actually fits quite snugly within a long tradition of American education. First comes an idea, and initial excitement. Then there is a backlash, followed by an uneasy period where ideas are implemented and critiqued. “And then ultimately there’s the sad truth with education research and millions of dollars that you will always end up with mixed results,” says Snyder. “You will never do an educational experiment with real live human beings that give you dramatic results.”

Duckworth’s Meketon thinks the grit backlash might be partly steeped in resentment towards the research’s popularity. “The cynical part of me says that if you find someone who is getting a lot of attention, you go against them and attack them,” he says. But Meketon acknowledges that perhaps a simpler explanation is that educators have short attention spans. “I was an educator for 40 years and I’ve watched the evolution of various ideas and best practices in education come and go.”

Snyder disagrees; he thinks it is administrators, policymakers, and philanthropists—like Bill Gates—who have short attention spans, not the educators themselves. “It’s the people who fund the type of research being done by Duckworth that tend to get bored more quickly, because they are excited by innovation in and of itself.” Snyder expects that in ten years we’ll see people excited about new ideas, or old ideas that are billed as new.

Ultimately, we just don’t know that much about grit yet. Even Angela Duckworth has admitted she doesn’t know if we can actually teach it in schools. Her lab is only just now beginning to develop tools that don’t rely predominately on self-reported assessments. Prior research suggests that we’re not all that good at teaching character in school. In 2010, the largest federal study on school-wide character education programs found that these programs largely fail to produce improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

This is not to say this is all pointless. The University of Chicago researchers did find plenty of evidence that supporting positive academic mindsets can help students develop better learning strategies, and in turn, improve their grades—learning strategies like breaking up long-term projects with incremental deadlines, which is what Willey tries to teach in his classroom.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, sees grit’s academic value, and defends teaching it in schools. (“Learning how to be persistent at an unpleasant task, it’s hard to argue that doesn’t matter,” she says.) But ultimately DeLuca worries about where the public conversation is going. “On the one hand, there’s a hopefulness that grit offers us. It’s an American narrative that’s really appealing, and it tells us that poor kids are not lost causes,” says DeLuca, who notes that too many policymakers just give up on kids in poverty. “But what happens with really popular ideas that have simple and compelling solutions is that you can run with them, and if things don’t change, then you start to think things can’t ever change.” By not confronting social structure directly within the grit narrative, we may be setting up these kids for failure. “At the end of the day,” says DeLuca, “poor kids—gritty or not—are still navigating within a profoundly unequal geography of opportunity.”