Monday, March 4, 2013

Even Union Run Charters Suck


Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

The State University of New York’s (SUNY) Board of Trustees is voting today on whether or not to close the UFT Charter School in East New York, Brooklyn.  UFT Charter School, which is run by the New York Teachers union (UFT) with UFT President Michael Mulgrew on its board of trustees, has been charged with a number of academic, financial and management failures, the New York Post reports.

SUNY reviewers recently concluded that the school’s overspending has resulted in a $2.8 million deficit. Despite their overspending, staff members have complained about chronic textbook shortages and the K-12 school’s performance at the middle grades has been poor. However, the reviewers left open the possibility of renewing the school’s charter because their test scores at the K-5 and high school levels were good. The school has also been accused of violating the Open Meetings Law for discussing budgetary and school status issues privately and for violating the rights of special-education students.

While labor activists have criticized the typical anti-union approach of most charter schools and had high expectations for the UFT Charter, critics are looking at its failures as proof that a unionized workforce is not beneficial to students. However, the failures of UFT Charter School are due to mismanagement, not the fact that the teachers are unionized. Any administrator or boss can be incompetent, autocratic and secretive, even if they have union credentials or backing.

Furthermore, the very context and rules for charter schools encourages the kinds of problems of which UFT Charter has been accused. Because they do not have to follow many of the rules governing traditional public schools (including reduced oversight by their districts) and because they have been anointed by so many politicians and reformers, some charter school administrators and managers are no doubt emboldened to push their authority even further than already permitted. Yet despite their glorification, charter schools are also under scrutiny (by investors, regulators and critics) and hence pressure to prove that they are more successful than traditional public schools. This can lead to cheating, pushing out (or not accepting) students who might lower their test scores (e.g., English language learners, special education and low income students) and other abuses.

Finally, as most critics of charter schools know, charter schools perform no better, on average, than traditional schools, while many perform much worse. This is likely due to a number of factors, including the competency of the schools’ leadership and their educational philosophies and structures. However, the single most significant factor influencing students’ academic success is their socioeconomic backgrounds, not their schools or teachers. Therefore, a charter school like UFT Charter, with its large numbers of low income students, has a challenging (if not impossible) task, regardless of who is at its helm.

Ultimately, the UFT Charter case tells us nothing about the pros and cons of having a unionized charter school. The teachers are not to blame for the school’s failures. What this case does tell us is that inept/corrupt leadership comes in all shapes and styles (including union-made) and even competent leadership, alone, is insufficient to solve that nation’s educational problems, so long as the socioeconomic factors influencing student achievement continue to be ignored.

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