Sam Duell is the Policy Director for Charter Schools at ExcelinEd.
The nation’s largest teacher union published a report that ranks charter school laws, and the news is predictable: unions continue to pick on public charter schools. I would argue that the charter law rankings from the National Education Association are not really about charter schools. If you read the report, you won’t see much information about how well charter schools serve students. You won’t see anything about how families increasingly demand more charter schools. And the report is not really about teachers or the fact that many charter schools are unionized.
This new effort seems to indicate that teachers’ unions (not to be confused with teachers) have chosen to fight policies that allow the creation of new and different public schools even though those public charter schools only serve about six percent of public-school students across the country. You may be asking, “Why are teachers’ unions picking on charter schools?”
For example, speaking to last year’s US Supreme Court decision, Janus vs. AFSCME, against a union pay structure that disallowed the union to charge non-union members for representation fees, the AFSCME union president Lee Saunders said, “Sisters and brothers, our rights are under attack. …This is a political power grab pure and simple.”
The decision means unions will have less money and maybe fewer members going forward. But according to an New York Times analysis by Noam Scheiber, smaller does not necessarily mean weaker. In fact, it could be argued that unions will be more active and more powerful as a result of the decision if they can prove their worth to potential members.
According to EdWeek, membership in the nation’s largest teachers’ union declined by about 17,000 last year and the union predicts they could lose another 300,000 members over the next two years. This trend predates Janus by several years. As USA Today noted in 2015, 64 percent of teachers were represented by unions in 1984, a number that dropped to 49 percent by 2015.
Charter schools have historically been a bipartisan issue, garnering healthy support from both Democrats and Republicans. Even as recently as last year, we could see congressional hearings where both sides of the aisle welcomed charter schools. The future of this bipartisanship is uncertain. As reported recently in the LA Times and by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, teachers’ unions seek to challenge and consolidate the Democratic education platform which is an opportunity that hasn’t appeared since at least President Carter was in office.
This report is an example of how teachers’ unions are missing huge opportunities to represent their teachers well, opportunities to constructively approach some of the biggest challenges facing public education. For example, rather than addressing charter school laws the NEA could be using their platform to talk about the fact that teacher pensions are underfunded by $500 billion. Unions could be highlighting the fact that birthrates continue to fall demanding a reinvention of the public school system, or that the future of the US workforce requires education systems be more agile.
These charter rankings are not really about charters. Instead, it’s a missed opportunity to speak truthfully about systemic challenges facing teachers and our country.