President Barack Obama, "by virtue of the authority vested" in him by the Constitution of the United States, proclaimed May 4th through May 10th, 2014, as National Charter Schools Week (Obama Proclamation).
Only a day before, on May 1st, I learned that the U.F.T. had agreed to a contract with some dubious propositions. Leaving aside the long delay in receiving long overdue raises, there was a stipulation to allow for up to 200 schools (or 10%) of the City's total to opt out of U.F.T. and D.O.E. rules with the approval of 65% of school personnel.
This provision seems to raise more questions than it answers. Teachers in these schools will still pay union dues, but they may lose out on many protections of the contract. I have read differing interpretations about how these proposed new schools might bend some of the old rules. According to some interpretations, they might develop original curriculum, extend the school day or the school year (The Post, May 2, 2014). Other sources indicated that principals and staff in schools might have greater latitude in hiring and firing fellow workers.
The Mayor and the U.F.T. bill the agreement as a breath of fresh air, creating laboratories for educational innovation, free of U.F.T. and D.O.E. rules. They believe these new schools will act like states in our federal system, sites for experimentation. Then, their successful strategies can, perhaps, be adopted across the City. Excepting prohibition laws, the states, more often than not, have experimented with extending rights. But, charters seem to diminish rights. Ninety percent of six thousand or more charters operate without union protections or the right of collective bargaining. The U.F.T. already runs some of its own charters and, indeed, represents some others. What will these new charter-like schools look like? What rights will teachers have and what rights will they lose? Will the Union as a whole be hurt by it all?
The charter-school advocates see the provisions as a concession to charter superiority. The Post used the quote, "If you can't beat charter schools, join 'em." In the same article, Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirstNY, was quoted as saying, "By emulating some of the best practices to come out of the charter-school movement, the administration continues to evolve on charters and recognize their important place in the city's educational landscape." She adds, "I would hope that they keep looking to the best charters for ideas of how to improve the entire system."
I wonder if the ideas below are some of the charter innovations to which Sedlis refers:
1. Excluding students, notably those with special needs and limited language abilities
2. High Elementary-School Suspensions (14-22% at the "Success" Academies)
5. Fancy Uniforms (like those of Success Academy)
7. Overcrowding underfunded public schools
10. Increasing segregation, particularly in NYC
Truly public-schools, unlike many current charters, can never and should never reject populations, permanently throw misbehaving students out the door or suspend the living daylights out of kids. The 200 schools potentially created under the new contract will probably not throw students out, but without many teacher protections, will due process be out the door for teachers?
It is clear to me that Albert Shanker's original vision for charter schools (before he became severely disenchanted with the entire idea) was significantly different from those of President Obama and many current charters whom the current "reformers" champion. I hope the U.F.T. realizes the differences:
1. Reformers today put a premium on test scores as the ultimate measure of success. Shanker realized in 1988 that one of the greatest problems with education reform is "the great obsession with standardized testing" (p. 3). By contrast, when Obama declared his National Charter Schools Week today, he mentioned "standards and accountability." We all know what that means.
2. Shanker realized that "top-down" reform cannot work (p.4). He favored "bottom-up" (p. 9). He objected to the one "magic bullet" or "one pill" (p. 7) offered to everybody by lawmakers (and I would add elitists with little-to-no classroom experience or knowledge of child psychology) "who haven't been near a child for years" (p. 30). I would say he pretty much predicted the coming of the Common Core.
3. Shanker hoped his experimental schools could be used to help the neediest. Those who "are not able to sit still and listen for that many hours, and are not able to read that long" (p.7). He wanted to protect these children from humiliation. Many of the charters today expel such children.
4. Although Shaker wanted to give his charters greater latitude for experimentation, he did not see any weakening of teachers or of their unions in these schools. Indeed, he favored "a strong union leader" and strong management, both operating with mutual respect. He thought the greatest laboratories for creative experimentation would exist "where there is a strong collective bargaining relationship" (p. 9).
5. The new U.F.T. contract calls for a 65% vote to modify the school. Shanker did not hold out the greatest hopes for NYC schools which modified their union contracts by a 75% vote (legal at the time, 1988). He said teachers felt as if "You're forcing me to do something that I didn't want to do." He likened it to shoving reform down people's throats (p. 19). I think we all know too much about that these days! I wonder what will happen if schools achieve the 65% vote under the new proposal and become "laboratories of change." What about the 35% of teachers who voted otherwise and may be dissatisfied? The laboratory may tell them to change or give them their walking papers.
6. In order to get around this obstacle, Shanker suggested "magnet schools" within schools. No one would have reform shoved down their throats. He made it clear that in his vision of public-school charters there would be no segregation. Instead, there would be a "mix of students in those schools" which "would have to reflect the school as a whole, and therefore what we're talking about is not inferior students or superior students; we're really talking about a group of parents and teachers who want to do something that is different" (p. 22). In his Proclamation of National Charter Schools Week, 2014, Obama seems to agree that charters should demonstrate "that all their students are progressing toward academic excellence" and that there is an "investment in every child." Yet, we know that this is clearly not the case; charters dump rejects out the door like hot potatoes. How else would they insure perfect graduation rates for their financial backers?
Much remains to be seen. Can the new prototype of cutting-edge schools be truly teacher driven? Will they be "bottom-up" and help the neediest kids? Will the rights of all workers be respected or will 35% be pariahs? Will teachers receive standard contractual protections? Will these schools be able to compete with the high-end, highly segregated charters? Will they be closed down by a future mayor some day if they cannot compete? Who will measure success and how will success be measured? Will these schools further strengthen our democracy or will they further weaken it?