Why unionized charters would be a setback for Ohio’s school improvement efforts

The Ohio Education Association (OEA) voted on Friday to launch an effort to recruit employees of Ohio’s 350-plus charter schools as union members. According to Ohio Department of Education data the state’s charters employ about 10,500 educators and 5,400 of these are classroom teachers. Currently there are no unionized start-up charter schools in Ohio, but there are some conversion district charter schools that have unionized teachers. Nationally, the Center on Reinventing Public Education reports that “about 12 percent of all charter schools have bargaining agreements.”

It is clear why the OEA and the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) would want to recruit charter teachers to their ranks. Unions define success in large part by the number of members they have and how much they collect in membership dues. Members and money equal influence at the statehouse, and in recent years the OEA has been losing both to charter schools.  As far back at 2006, the OEA shared with its members a paper entitled “The Current State of Ohio’s Charter School Program.” In it they declared that “the charter school program in Ohio is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to ‘dismantle’ public education.” It noted that “charter schools have reduced union-represented bargaining unit positions…The total number of traditional public school personnel, excluding administrators, lost to charter schools is calculated to be (in 2004) 4,782.”

But, would unionized charter schools be good for students?

Successful charters work because they are flexible and constantly seek improvements to how they do things. They deploy funds, teachers, time, materials, and technology in different ways to impact student achievement. High-performing charter schools almost always display strong cultures, astute and driven leaders, dedicated teachers, coherent curricula, shared responsibility, and a sense of common purpose. Successful schools know their students and address their needs. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for charter schools is that they are expected to be different. Collective bargaining agreements put constraints on all these factors that lead to success and impede not only innovation but seek conformity across schools.

It is ironic that just as the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is seeking serious reforms to, and flexibilities in, its current collective bargaining agreement that the OEA wants to put charter schools under similar sorts of constraints. This is a mistake if we want more high-performing schools, especially for our neediest students. As we reported in our 2010 report Needles in A Haystack: Lessons from Ohio’s high-performing, high-need urban schools,  Needles “schools all have distinctive programs, missions and operational structures, put into place by school leaders and their teams to meet the unique needs of their students. Yet most districts adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. The result is that some of the most challenged schools in Ohio operate under teacher contract restrictions and district rules and regulations that make wholesale improvement extremely difficult.”

School improvement in Ohio is not going to be achieved by making charters more like district schools. It can be achieved, however, by giving district schools more charter like autonomies and flexibilities. Of course, increased autonomy should be tightly linked to heightened accountability as it relates to student performance goals. Districts could benefit from charter like freedoms by loosening the regulatory vise on schools as they demonstrate greater performance, granting freedoms in the areas that matter most to schools – determining the school calendar and schedule, adjusting curriculum and programs to meet student needs, acquiring more control over the school’s budget and making all personnel decisions.

Unionized charter schools may make good sense for the unions themselves, but they would be a set-back for school improvement efforts in the Buckeye State.

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