Can Ohio Handle Union-Sponsored Charter Schools?
Both the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) and the Ohio Education Association (OEA) have hinted in recent weeks that they are going to work to unionize charter school teachers. The move is not unique to Ohio. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, now represents teachers in 30 charter schools scattered across ten states.
Moreover, in New York City the United Federation of Teachers has opened an elementary charter school and has plans to open a secondary school in September. In California, Green Dot Public Schools operates five high-performing charter schools in Los Angeles and the teachers are part of Green Dot Public Schools’ teachers union.
But the overall good will that exists between charters and the unions outside Ohio is not to be found here. That’s because the OFT is aggressively trying to stop charter schools. Consider the case Ohio Federation of Teachers et al. v. Ohio State Board of Education, which is pending before the state Supreme Court. Both supporters and opponents of charter schools are watching to see if the high court rules in favor of the OFT, and decision that would mean:
- Ohio’s charter school statute violates the Ohio Constitution;
- further appropriations to charter schools would end; and
- A Writ of Mandamus will be issued that compels Ohio to recover state funds—hundreds of millions of dollars—that have been appropriated to charter schools since 1998.
It’s easy to see why charter supporters in the Buckeye State believe the efforts of the OFT and the OEA to organize teachers in existing charter schools is little more than another tactic to make life hard and increasingly costly for the state’s charter school operators.
Charter schools that are considering unionizing should remember that one of the freedoms most cherished by charter school operators is their ability to hire and fire teachers, without having to go through a long and expensive grievance process. A second significant freedom allows charter schools to reward truly outstanding teachers with better pay. Charter schools can pay teachers extra for excellent performance or for working longer hours, or teaching demanding subjects such as math; likewise, they can offer combat pay for teaching the toughest classes. Collective bargaining agreements make such flexible remuneration arrangements difficult if not impossible, and they far too often reward seniority over performance or school need.
None of this is to say that unions and charter schools cannot coexist in Ohio. In fact, the OFT and OEA could, instead of simply unionizing teachers, sponsor their own charter schools, a right afforded them under current state law.
It’s intriguing to imagine union-sponsored charter schools competing against the state’s current charters for students, teachers, and academic success. This would be far healthier competition than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars slugging it out in the courts.
Both the leadership of the OFT and the OEA have said that they aren’t opposed to the charter school idea, but that they think Ohio’s charters have got it all wrong. Okay, let them show us how to do it right.
Straight Talk About Charter Schools, by Randi Weingarten, United Federation of Teachers, April 4, 2006.