Unsatisfied with the stranglehold they have on the nation’s regular public schools, teachers’ unions have long sought to gain access to charter schools, most of which operate free of the workplace restrictions (and job protections) that the unions have won for their members. Now a battle is underway in New York City, where a national symbol of the charter school movement is struggling to keep unionization at bay.

Among today’s most important education reforms—President Obama recently made them a centerpiece of his education agenda—charter schools currently enroll more than 1.3 million students nationwide. About 4,600 charter schools operate in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Students attend these schools by choice, not assignment, and the schools come in many forms. Some are small operations run by local community members, while others are part of larger networks, with common philosophies and practices. One such national network, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), is viewed by many as the charter movement’s gold standard.

KIPP’s 66 charter schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia focus exclusively on disadvantaged urban students thought to have only a remote chance of graduating from high school, let alone of attending college. KIPP schools have compiled an amazing track record turning low-achieving students into academically proficient young men and women. Last spring, 96 percent of the first class to enter the first KIPP high school—in inner-city Houston—headed off to a four-year college or university.

KIPP owes much of its success to the high standards it sets for both students and teachers. KIPP schools look past their students’ backgrounds and simply demand that they do the work necessary for college admission. Teaching in a KIPP school entails a rigorous commitment, as the organization’s website describes: “Teachers typically work a nine-hour work day during the week, half days on selected Saturdays, and three weeks in the summer. They also are available via cell phone for homework help in the evening.” Compare that to the norm in public schools. For example, the New York City teachers’ union contract stipulates: “The school day for teachers serving in the schools shall be six hours and 20 minutes.” Like other such contracts across the country, it sets out the exact number of days per year that a teacher can be required to work and exactly which duties he or she can be asked to perform. Giving out cell-phone numbers to students is not among them.

Teachers are well aware of the extra time and effort KIPP requires. Most KIPP students enter the classroom performing at low proficiency; their parents often lack the ability to help them with schoolwork. Teachers get compensated for these extra educational burdens, and usually make 15 to 20 percent more in salary than teachers in the surrounding school district. But the tougher demands in KIPP schools have reportedly led to high turnover rates. Some teachers burn out and leave; others that can’t cut it are let go.

Citing these high turnover rates and tough work requirements, the teachers’ unions see an opportunity. Last January, a majority of teachers in two New York City KIPP schools signed cards declaring their intention to join the city’s public school union, the United Federation of Teachers. (Such a “card check” majority is all that’s required under New York State law for public employees to unionize; Democrats in Congress support passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make card-check, as opposed to the current system of secret-ballot elections, the law of the land for unionizing workplaces.)

“It’s a matter of sustainability for teachers,” one teacher told the New York Times. “There’s a heavy workload, and people have to balance their lives with their work.” UFT President Randi Weingarten claimed that the teachers wanted a greater “voice” in the operation of their schools in order to “find ways to make it better.”

The rub is how to define “better.” KIPP schools already anticipate high teacher turnover, and despite (or maybe because) of it, continue to do well by their students. For instance, at the two New York KIPP schools where teachers are eyeing unionization, student test scores are among the highest anywhere in the city. One could argue that the schools would be even more effective if teachers had more control—that is, had a union—but why mess with something that works so well?

If their teachers became unionized, KIPP and other charter schools would not immediately face requirements to adopt local school contracts. Rather, through the union, the teachers would collectively negotiate their own labor agreements. But once the union’s nose is in the tent, it would surely push charter schools toward the public agreements. It’s hard to imagine that nine-hour workdays and a longer work year would survive many contract renegotiations. And it’s equally unlikely that KIPP would retain its ability to fire ineffective teachers without having to go through an overly burdensome process. If KIPP and other charter schools choose to unionize, they’ll very probably come to resemble the failing urban public schools to which they currently provide such a hopeful alternative.

Recognizing what’s at stake, KIPP has so far refused to recognize the union, sending the dispute to the state labor board. The teachers’ union, meanwhile, has also filed complaints with the board, claiming that KIPP’s co-founder Dave Levin and his human-resources staff have inappropriately urged teachers not to unionize. Whether or not such “urging” did occur is unclear, but last week teachers in one of the two schools unanimously petitioned to sever their relationship with the union.

For KIPP, the fundamental question is one at the heart of much modern education reform: do schools operate for the kids who attend them or the adults who staff them? Charter schools benefit kids because they’re free from many of the stultifying restrictions that teachers’ unions have imposed on our public schools. Everyone interested in real education reform should root for KIPP to stand firm—and win.


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