California’s teachers’ unions are at a crossroads over how to handle their “charter school problem.” Roughly 15 percent of the state’s nearly 1,100 charter schools are unionized, but the effort to organize the independent public schools remains costly, time-consuming, and fraught with uncertainty. The schools themselves are popular with parents and many legislators. Though Governor Jerry Brown is a big fan of charters, he’s also friendly with the unions, and nobody knows for certain what he’ll sign or veto next. Perhaps the best that charter opponents could hope for at this point is to constrain charter schools’ growth at the margins by imposing new regulatory burdens.

To that end, Assembly Bill 917 may be part of the unions’ long-awaited solution. Gardena Democrat Steven Bradford’s bill would amend the state’s education code to require that at least half of unionized teachers and nonteaching staff at a school considering conversion to charter status sign a petition in order to make the switch. Existing law requires only that 50 percent of teachers or parents sign a petition, either for a new charter or a charter conversion. The California Charter Schools Association endorsed the new bill, claiming it would give “greater flexibility to charter school petitioners.” Yet one of the bill’s prime movers is the Service Employees International Union, whose affiliates represent non-teaching school employees—bus drivers, kitchen staff, janitors, and so forth. The SEIU’s support for AB 917 suggests an objective other than “flexibility” for charters.

Bradford’s bill is hardly the first union-backed measure aimed at constraining charter growth, and others have been far more hostile. In 2011, the California Teachers Association sponsored AB 1172, which would have let a chartering authority—usually the local school district—deny a charter petition if officials made a “written factual finding that the charter school would have a negative fiscal impact on the school district.” But the bill, vague on what “negative fiscal impact” meant, died in committee. Existing law offers plenty of well-defined reasons to deny a petition already.

Contrary to popular belief, charter schools are public schools. But unlike most public schools, a charter that doesn’t perform well can be shut down. When California passed its charter school law 21 years ago, few would have predicted that the state would eventually lead the nation in the number of charters. Today, some 480,000 pupils—about 8 percent of the state’s K–12 student population—are enrolled in charter schools. (According to a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the United States now has more than 6,000 charter schools with an enrollment of 2.3 million students, or 4 percent of the national total). Another 50,000 California kids are on waiting lists, a symptom of perhaps the greatest challenge facing charters today: a lack of available and affordable space. When the state’s first charter schools opened in 1993, they faced heavy resistance from district bureaucrats and unions, and the law capped the number of such schools at just 25 statewide. (Today, the cap is closer to 1,750. It goes up every year, and California has never come close to reaching it.) But the law reflected a broad consensus favoring “innovation and systemic change.”

Teachers’ unions oppose charters partly on ideological grounds and partly out of self-interest. They stand to lose market share as charters proliferate. The unions’ raison-d’être is to protect the jobs of every last teacher (including the incompetent and depraved) and to control the work rules in every school. Because of charters’ independence, the unions have developed a schizoid view of them. The National Education Association has repeatedly condemned charters as corrosive of public education, yet union members last year adopted a resolution that “encouraged” organizing charters and “directed the national office to share with local chapters ‘key information’ about lessons from previous union drives.” Stanley Aronowitz, a longtime New York City radical, summed up the union dilemma when he referred to charters as “ratty” schools that “should be abolished,” and in the next breath said, “at the same time, we should organize them.”

Here in the Golden State, reports union watchdog Mike Antonucci, the 300,000-member CTA is weighing whether to distribute its monthly magazine to all charter school teachers and share “the joys of teachers’ unions.” The union may also put together workshops for union activists under the rubric, “How to Unionize Charter School Teachers.” Yet the union may also create a committee on the “problem of charter schools,” specifically to reverse a recent state law that “gives charters first crack at surplus school property.” The ad hoc union committee would also work to persuade legislators to “order performance audits of charter schools” and deny them “basic school appropriations so that they would have to have their own separate source of funding.” The union adds, “the harmful impact of charter schools needs to be made transparent. Having our active members vote on this issue will both educate and make the harm done by charter schools evident.” Observes Antonucci: “I’m pretty sure this stuff won’t appear in the promotional materials CTA distributes to charter school teachers. But I’m confident they’re informed enough to know that the union has been the most implacable foe of charter schools in California for more than 20 years.”

It’s worth noting that unionized charters don’t perform as well as their nonunion counterparts. Evaluating Boston’s charter schools in 2009, Harvard economist Thomas Kane discovered that “students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit.” In other words, a unionized charter is no different than a unionized traditional public school. Unions may support charters, but unionized charters are stripped of everything that makes them different from traditional public schools.

AB 917 has passed both houses of the legislature and awaits Brown’s signature or veto. Constraining the growth of charter schools in California—with tens of thousands of kids waitlisted for scarce desk space—would be a regrettable turn in a state that desperately needs to move away from business as usual.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next