WASHINGTON – Just months after successfully lobbying to kill a voucher proposal from the Bush administration's education package, teachers' unions may be taking aim at another source of competition for public schools: the 2,100 charter schools across the country.
The National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers' union, says it is adopting a "new policy" toward charter schools, the taxpayer-subsidized schools granted special permission to operate independently from public school systems. The union is demanding that charter schools adopt several restrictions and policies that currently bind the nation's traditional public schools.
But charter school supporters call the union's policy yet another obstacle to education reform, put forth by a teachers' union they say is hostile to change, innovation and flexibility.
"Every criterion they point out can be traced back to keeping their members in power in the schools," said Nathaniel Koonce, an education policy analyst with Empower America, a Washington-based political advocacy organization. "Which is fine for them, if you think that the union must be a job-protection racket."
"There are a lot more smoke and mirrors to the NEA’s charter school interests than it appears," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and voucher initiatives.
Allen and other charter school advocates assert that effective charter schools — which arose in response to parents who expressed dismay with the current public school system — can only flourish when they are free from the red tape of the government and the teachers' unions.
At their annual convention last week, the NEA expanded guidelines which say that charter school teachers need to be licensed and certified by the state, just as traditional public school teachers are, and that charter schools should not be run by for-profit entities, as some are today.
The NEA also insists that "equitable, non-discriminatory admission procedures" must be put into place for charter schools, a policy that would prohibit single-sex charter schools.
Discussing the admissions procedures, NEA spokesman Denise Cardinal said the union believes charter schools "must adhere to the same federal and state laws as public schools do," she said.
The union points to reports of some charter school failures to support its call for change. "Once touted as a high-quality alternative to mainstream public schools," says NEA President Bob Chase, "dozens of charter schools across the nation have recently shut their doors due to mismanagement or low test scores."
Cardinal points to situations like the recent shift in operations at the Advantage, Inc. New Frontier charter school in Texas. The board of the school’s four campuses decided that the students were not keeping up with established academic standards, so another private company is now taking over operations.
But critics of the NEA say that, despite the union’s stated support for charter schools and public education reform, the NEA’s positions are consistent with what they describe as a long-held opposition to charter schools.
And last week’s NEA statement of its policy on the schools, they say, confirms the union’s desire to stifle reforms.
"They like charter schools as long as they look and act like public schools," Allen said.
Koonce says that the union is trying to reshape the charter school movement in its own likeness, and that any failures experienced by some charter schools — including those cited by the union’s leadership — are simply a result of what its advocates sought in the first place: competition.
"I think charter advocates are happy about this," he said. The schools that closed did so "because [they] are facing scrutiny and are facing stricter accountability than public schools." Koonce argued that it is virtually impossible to shut down a failing public school.
Allen says the union’s decision to highlight those charter schools that have failed shows the cracks in the group’s carefully crafted veneer of reform.
"They don’t like charter schools at all," she said. "There is a very contradiction between unions and their policies and charter schools and school choice," she added. "I think they would like nothing more than to see them blow up next week and say 'I told you so.'"
But when asked if the NEA would stop the movement if possible, Cardinal said. "I would really have to disagree with that. A lot of our members enjoy teaching in charter schools and they see first hand that unions can work in a charter school environment. I think there’s definitely a place for them."
The union reversed its official opposition to charter schools in 1995.