False friends: From California to Washington, D.C., "The Blob" resists charter schools

By Robert Holland
web posted December 25, 2000

Despite the rapid expansion of charter schools in most states, the teachers unions and their nonprofit allies continue to advocate state and local regulations that would strangle the schools' creativity and limit competition with regular public schools. But these are the very reasons many states have embraced charter schools — to improve public education by innovating and spurring other schools to reform. Who are these members of the "Education Blob" which threaten to stall school reform?

Charter schools have achieved a critical mass that may enable them to permanently change the face of American public education. The number of these semi-autonomous public schools tops 2,000. Parents have chosen to enroll more than 500,000 of their children in charter schools.

But these advances are not easily gained. A fierce rear-guard resistance is being mounted by bureaucracies, labor unions and nonprofit interest groups that control the policies and administration of public schools. These interests are collectively known to education reformers as the "Education Blob."

Two national teacher unions — the 2.5-million-member National Education Association and the one-million-member American Federation of Teachers — and their state and local affiliates work most aggressively to curb charter schools. It's not surprising that the unions see a threat to their labor monopoly in the charter school movement. A June 1999 study by the Mackinac Center found that in Michigan, a stronghold for Big Labor, the teacher unions have flopped in trying to organize charter-school teachers. Only five of Michigan's 139 charter schools had unionized teachers.

Given widespread bipartisan support for charter schools, the NEA and AFT often try to hide their enmity and claim to endorse the concept of charters. That is also the practice of other organizational elements of The Blob, including the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National PTA. Their strategy is to smother charter schools in the embrace of re-regulation: We love you so much we want you to be just one of the public-school family. And we know you will want to accept all the collectively bargained or bureaucratically imposed rules that apply to all other public schools.

Such obstacles to charters fly in the face of a demonstrated public demand for deregulated alternatives to public schools. The number of charter schools nation wide has grown to 2,069 since the first charter school was established in Minnesota in 1992. The conventional wisdom is turning around. In major urban centers, more and more education experts are reaching the conclusion that charter schools may offer the last, best hope for families to find sane, safe schools that teach their children what they need to know to become productive members of society.

Birds of a Feather

Look at some of the recent policy statements of Blob organizations and notice how like-minded are these false friends of charter schools.

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) states in its 2000-2001 resolutions that it recognizes charter schools as "one of several mechanisms available to local school boards," but only if the school board retains "sole authority" to grant the charter. That's plainly a bid to maintain monopoly control. States with the healthiest growth of public charter schools (such as Arizona and Michigan) permit charter applicants to appeal school-board rejections. Or else the states approve separate agencies, such as universities or special chartering boards, that are given the authority to grant charters.

Many local school boards don't want charter schools to compete with the public schools' cookie-cutter approach to education. NSBA urges local school boards to ensure that charter schools do not foster segregation of children "by disability, ability, sexual orientation, or academic performance." That remarkable litany suggests, among other things, that charter schools could not have a class for slow learners, or practice any form of ability-grouping, even though many public schools engage in just such practices.

In its charter-school policy statement, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) demands that "the same regulations and accountability… apply to all schools receiving public funding." Of course, it's the driving principle behind charter schools that they be free from these bureaucratic strictures. Other than basic common rules covering health, safety and civil rights, charter schools want to innovate. In their charters, these schools agree to be accountable to their chartering authorities for academic results. They also hold themselves accountable to the parents who choose to enroll their children.

A third bubble in the Blob, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), gives the regulatory vise a few more twists. Charters, it says, must follow the identical mandates of other government schools, including "the selection, admission and retention of all students; the licensing and certification of all professional staff; and the participation in all state and/or district assessment programs as required by public schools."

What about PTA? Certainly parents who might want to join with teachers to form a charter school will not find friends in National PTA's Chicago and Washington offices. A February 1999 statement in PTA's Our Children magazine, cited as official policy on PTA's website, adds to all these restrictions a prohibition against the operation of charter schools by for-profit companies. Such a policy would shut down promising charter schools run by the Edison Project, among others. National PTA "is not the voice of parents," Charlene K. Haar noted in the May 2000 issue of Organization Trends. Apparently it also thinks the profit motive is a bad idea.

Independent or Union-Dominated?

The hostility of entrenched school boards and administrators may be couched in bureaucratic double-talk, but the two national teacher unions know no such restraint. At its national convention in Philadelphia last summer, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) effectively "declared war" on charter schools (as a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter put it), vowing to strangle them in regulation.

"There is no such thing as a good charter-school law," asserted Al Fondy, president of the AFT affiliate in Pittsburgh.

The AFT resolution snarled that charter schools "must not become a device for undermining public schools, for profit-making schemes, for privatization, for backdoor promotion of vouchers, for promoting an anti-public-education and anti-government agenda or for sabotaging the collective bargaining rights of school staff." AFT demanded that charters never be operated by for-profit companies, abide by the same standards and assessments that apply to other public schools, hire only "fully certified teachers," never drain money from other public schools from which parents may flee and conform to all collective bargaining agreements.

AFT can't stand that chartering authorities award their organizers considerable autonomy in exchange for a promise to deliver academic results. In many cases, that means independence for teachers and administrators from initiative-stifling union rules. Here's what really irks the unions — they can't abide a challenge to compulsory unionism.

The National Education Association (NEA) takes a somewhat softer line than AFT toward charters. NEA even has five charter sites of its own where it collects "research" about what promotes student achievement. But with 16,000 local associations and a budget of close to $1 billion padded by mandatory teacher dues of $400 to $500 a year, NEA is the 800-pound gorilla within The Blob.

NEA's Legislative Program for the 106th Congress provides one tip-off to its opposition to truly independent charter schools. The item for "public charter schools" called for a reduction in federal spending for charters in stark contrast to overall NEA demands for a $906 billion increase in the federal budget. The devil was in this detail: "NEA supports the provision of federal funding assistance to public charter schools that comply with all federal, state and local laws and policies regarding due process, nondiscrimination and equal educational opportunity." That means, among other things, that a charter school would receive no exemption from a local collective bargaining agreement or other policies making teachers toe the union line.

The NEA's web site (www.nea.org/issues/charter) expounds a wide assortment of the NEA's "concerns" about charter schools. Here is some of what they say:

"Researchers still have no clear answers to questions about the role of charter schools in increasing student achievement. And some state charter laws, particularly those funding home schooling or distance learning, could harm students and threaten the integrity of public education. Equity issues are also a concern because some charter schools, for instance, either do not serve or they under-serve the needs of bilingual students, or students who require special education. And in some states, charter school laws do not build the critical factors of oversight and accountability into the process, which is a recipe for disaster in such a deregulated environment. Finally, funding for charter schools has become controversial, particularly where local school districts lose funding to charter operators even when the need for services in the rest of district schools remains the same, as has happened in some suburban, rural and small urban districts."

What comes through most clearly from that jumble of "concerns" is a fear of competition. But the possibility of losing support to charter schools is precisely why charter schools are established in the first place. Competition could force a school establishment to do better by its pupils in order to hold on to them.

NEA and AFT representatives have not been shy about asking U.S. Department of Education officials to cooperate in putting the clamps on charter schools. Last year, the Clinton Administration did the unions' bidding in one key provision of its proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: it tightened the screws on teacher credentialing and licensing. With the ostensible purpose of improving the quality of teaching, the Administration sought to require that 95 percent of teachers in all states be state-certified within four years. But many states currently give charter schools the flexibility to hire teachers of diverse background. Many new hires have not gone through the education-school track toward official certification.

Private schools have demonstrated that students can learn with non-state-certified teachers; there are many persons in varied walks of life who could make great contributions to classrooms. Indeed, charter schools came into existence partly to take advantage of that talent pool. But if a state is required to reach the Clinton Administration's arbitrary level of 95 percent certified teachers, then it might well look less favorably on charter schools that bring down its average. A state will be tempted to use its legislative power to remove flexibility in teacher hiring, an action that can only damage charter schools. The Administration has been unwilling to exempt charter schools from such requirements.

Union Counter-Attacks

It is at the state level that NEA hostility most often translates into action. Consider the New Jersey Education Association. In December 1999, its leaders called for legislative action because of "continuing concerns about charter schools." Its proposals included:

  • A "hold-harmless" system of funding so that the public school system won't lose any funds because of the growth of charter schools. This system would ensure that schools receive more money per pupil even when they lose pupils because parents are dissatisfied with the quality of their kids' education.
  • A speed-up in the state evaluation of charter schools from the scheduled 2002.
  • A continued cap on charter schools' recruitment which requires that they can enroll no more than 500 students or 25 percent of a district's population.

In a paid advertisement in the Newark Star-Ledger, NJEA chief Michael Johnson claimed that "the promises and possibilities of many charter schools have evaporated" to be replaced with, among other things, "lock-step instructional programs with little room for innovation." That, of course, is what the unions have created in regular public schools. In truth, charter schools offer a range of educational methodology from the traditional to progressive. NJEA ignores the key consideration: families are flocking to charter schools because they want a better education for their children. NEA and AFT want to cut off that option and save the education monopoly from impending crackup.

Perhaps the bloodiest battleground is in California. Last year, California's NEA affiliate strongly supported a bill in the state legislature that would have forced charter-school teachers to join teacher unions and operate under existing labor contracts in their districts. The California Teachers Association portrayed the bill as a kindly measure that would grant charter teachers the same rights enjoyed by regular public-school teachers.

But charter-school advocates promptly pointed out that they exist in order to be exempt from the usual requirements. And they found a valuable and unexpected new recruit in their battle for independence: Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. As governor of California, Brown had been a strong supporter of the union agenda, but running an at-risk city apparently gave him a new perspective. With Brown's help, the Democratic powers-that-be in Sacramento got the message. The bill was watered down into a meaningless compromise which said charter teachers could join unions if they wanted to, a right they already enjoyed.

The battle was brief, but the stakes were enormous. If this measure had become law, says Sue Bragato, executive director of the California Network of Education Charters, "it would have closed [charter] schools down."

As charter schools increase and become ever more a threat to union monopolies based on control of forced dues, politicians increasingly will try to strip them of their charters of independence. In June, the Blob exacted a measure of revenge on Mayor Jerry Brown to by frustrating his effort to start a military academy where National Guard personnel would use a structured approach to teach college-prep courses. The state was supposed to chip in $1.3 million. But Brown's plan was blocked by school board members who alleged the school was "racist" by implying that young blacks need discipline.

Never mind that the academy would have been available to those who chose to attend. Never mind that in 1999 fewer than one in 10 black males graduating from Oakland high schools had the courses necessary to apply to nearby California State University at Hayward. Ideology triumphed over expanded opportunity for poor kids attending woefully inadequate schools in Oakland.

Board-Room Politics

The Blob was not finished. Even though in 1998 the California legislature amended the California Charter Schools Act to limit school boards' ability to arbitrarily reject charter applications, the California School Boards Association (CSBA) published an online questionnaire for school boards to fill out whenever they became aware of a charter-school petition. It had the look of an electronic dossier on would-be education innovators.

CSBA published an eight-page list of information that boards should demand of charter applicants. It included everything from demands for instructional methodology and criminal background checks to plans for sorting and assessing students; in short it was a checklist to require everything imposed on regular public schools. Although it's legitimate for boards to collect basic information, CSBA's opus looked like an invitation to nit-pick an application to death.

Other events in California show the lengths to which the Blob will go to thwart the challenge of charters.

Founders of Plumas Charter School in a rural section of California about 80 miles north of Lake Tahoe thought they had a promise from local school administrators to have access to the district's ample stock of surplus K-12 textbooks. The charter school opened two years ago with 70 students and there were enough surplus textbooks to fill two flatbed trucks.

That's where the books went — on two flatbeds — but unfortunately district school officials ordered them dumped.

"Nobody said we're sorry," recalls Jerry Holland, the school's associate director (not related to the author of this article). "Nobody said, excuse me, we made a mistake. They just threw away all the textbooks rather than give them to us. They didn't like us."

The district later refused to give Plumas Charter other surplus items like desks and chairs, but its founders were undaunted and they rounded up sufficient furniture from a state surplus warehouse. As for books, they bought some older texts and found a number of sympathetic principals who shared their leftovers. Holland warns that charter organizers should expect the worst from district officials who fear competition. But he also argues that they should view each win as a foothold that won't be relinquished.

Discourage and Delay

Undoubtedly some would-be organizers of innovative charter schools become discouraged by obstructionist tactics from state and local school bureaucracies. Rob Kremer of the Oregon Education Coalition, which led the battle for passage of a charter-school law in Oregon last year, has seen school districts attempt to discourage charter-school board members by requiring them to make public their personal credit histories. One district even demanded that charter schools comply with "any and all future district regulations" that it might decide to impose.

The Blob will do whatever it can to chill, slow down or destroy the momentum for charter schools in the 37 states with charter school laws. Kremer notes that Oregon's state education agency refuses to give charter schools access to technology grants that are earmarked by statute for "qualified public schools." Nina Buchanan of the Charter Schools Consortium at the University of Hawaii says it took the state department of education six months just to develop a form for charter applicants to use. The centralized agency wound up approving only four charter schools, all on the "Big Island," despite considerable demand for charters on the outer islands.

Frivolous court challenges are one popular weapon against charter schools. Bryan Hassel, author of several books on the charter movement, said a school in Charlotte, North Carolina received its charter in March, only to be slapped with a suit by the school district in June, just three months before opening. Although the suit (challenging the school's admissions practices) was dismissed, "it cost the charter school a lot of time and a great deal of stress," Hassel said. "I don't know if they actually lost any students, but that kind of cloud of uncertainty can scare away parents, who may value stability."

In 1998, researchers documented extreme hostility on the part of local districts toward eight new charter schools in Massachusetts, according to Hassel. Incidents included alleged harassment of charter-school organizers as well as prospective students and parents, and refusal to turn over student records until long after the school year began, thereby complicating charter school efforts to organize. In one instance, a school system attempted to convince a congregation to lease space to it instead of to a local charter school, which had set up temporarily at a motel.

Another anti-charter tactic surfaced in North Carolina: the "diversity" card. When state legislators in 1996 decided to authorize charter schools, they attached a provision requiring schools to "reasonably reflect" the demographics of the local school district. Lawmakers viewed this as a way to forestall any perception that the charters were somehow a late 20th-century version of the "white flight" academies that sprang up in the South in the 1950s and 1960s to resist court-ordered public-school desegregation. But many of the charters quickly experienced something quite different: there was black flight as dissatisfied black parents tried to escape the public schools. In a state where only about 30 percent of public-school pupils are African-American, more than half the students attending charter schools were African-American. About a third of North Carolina's first 60 charter schools were more than 85 percent black.

The North Carolina Association of Educators — the NEA affiliate — turned the diversity rule against the charter schools. It argued that the legislature should force the State Board of Education to close some of the predominantly black schools. The union was looking out for its own interests, not the interests of minority parents.

Friends of Charter Schools

There is good news. Despite the resistance of powerful unions and Blob organizations, the momentum of the charter school movement is building.

In Massachusetts, the support of prominent politicians for charter schools has flushed out the unions' hostility toward innovation. When U.S. Senator John Kerry — a winner of "friend of education" awards from the NEA and AFT — began in 1998 to sing the praises of charter schools, he incurred the wrath of union leaders. Kerry notably proposed "to make every public school in this country essentially a charter school," meaning a school freed from many of the bureaucratic and often union-negotiated rules impeding today's public schools. An NEA official groused to The Boston Globe, "We are not pleased with his swipes at teachers' unions." They took it personally.

In Massachusetts as well as other states, politicians of diverse stripe are getting impatient with teacher union obstructionism. The ranks of reformers in Massachusetts swelled even more when over half the state's teaching candidates flunked a basic competency test. Meanwhile, individual philanthropists and nonprofits are organizing private scholarship programs. Investors John Walton and Ted Forstmann have shown that there is huge pent-up demand for school choice in America's inner cities; in 1999, 1.25 million applicants sought 40,000 scholarships offered by the philanthropists' Children's Scholarship Foundation.

In Washington, D.C., there are now 33 charter schools on 40 campuses that enroll almost 10,000 students. That's an increase of 40 percent from last year and represents 13 percent of D.C.'s public-school enrollment. One day soon, Washington could be the first city in America where all public schools are charter schools.

The progress in D.C. has not come without bitter sniping from the central school bureaucracy. Under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) went so far as to threaten the eviction of Paul Junior High School staff and teachers when they sought conversion into a public charter school. Then DCPS demanded that Paul share its building with a quickly concocted special program. Not until the federal city's Control Board ruled in Paul's favor did that particular crisis ease. (Ackerman recently left D.C. for San Francisco partly because of her disdain for the charter movement.)

DCPS also tried to block the establishment of other charter schools by pulling from the market some three-dozen vacant school buildings — some empty for as long as 20 years — that could provide desperately needed charter facilities. Congressional intervention has taken the surplus properties out of school board hands and put them under Mayor Anthony Williams's control. Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has built a coalition of support for D.C. charter schools since passage of an enabling law in 1996, says D.C. charter-school supporters hope to negotiate an agreement with the Mayor for use of the surplus schools. D.C. charter schools are publicly accountable to either of two chartering authorities: the elected Board of Education or the D.C. Public Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by the Mayor.

The attitude of DCPS toward the challenge of charter schools has improved markedly under Ackerman's successor, Paul Vance.

"These are public charter schools, and public is the important word," Vance told The Washington Times. "As long as they are public education charters, I don't feel an overt threat. I see parents as sending us a message that they are desperate to find acceptable ways to educate their children. That is a serious challenge for us."

Charter schools have other friends, notably among organizations that draw their strength from urban communities. Among these are the National Urban League, the National Council of La Raza, the Charter Friends National Network (a Minnesota-based umbrella organization of charter activists), the YMCA of the USA and numerous Chambers of Commerce and business groups at the local level.

The National Council of La Raza, which promotes Hispanic interests, and YMCA have both lent encouragement to grassroots charter organizers. La Raza has conducted workshops to assist with "selecting, adapting or developing school design and curriculum models that are successful for use in classrooms with linguistically and culturally diverse student populations." In Houston, YMCA joined with the Houston Independent School District to open a charter school serving the total education/child care needs of immigrant children from pre-kindergarten through the second grade.

The National Urban League's president, Hugh B. Price, has been an especially strong proponent of charter schools. In a December 1999 speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Price suggested replacing attempted "systemic" reform of urban education with a strategy to create successful schools throughout a school system. He advocated charter schools as the model.

"I believe," Price said, "existing urban schools should be treated like charter schools. Liberate them from the stifling central office bureaucracy and give them the latitude to operate the way independent secular schools do."

The stifling bureaucracy will not go quietly, of course. Nor will the Education Blob. But the charter-school movement figures to continue its growth because of increasing demands by education consumers for more choices and substance within the public-school system.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. Reprinted with the kind permission of the Capitol Research Centre.

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