www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-edit-charter-20110316,0,1140682.story5:12 PM CDT, March 16, 2011
But not most teachers at charter schools. Charters were created in the 1990s to be innovative and to put the needs of kids before those of the adults. They were set up expressly not to be bound by the stultifying union rules that dictate nearly every minute of every day in Chicago public schools. That's why the law that created charters effectively barred the Chicago Teachers Union from organizing the employees.
But with CTU's help, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and American Federation of Teachers created a separate union, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, to organize employees campus by campus. So far, they've succeeded on eight of Chicago's 103 charter campuses: About 350 to 380 teachers of 2,200 have joined.
That's unfortunate because union rules pose a threat to charters' independence. Charters generally set longer days and hours that boost student performance. They are wildly popular with students and parents, and tend to have long waiting lists of applicants. Charters show how, with dedicated teachers and the right atmosphere, any student can learn. All of that is a direct challenge to the status quo that the unions defend.
If charter school teachers join the union, the risks are steep that those schools will eventually slide into the same kind of adults-first, innovation-squelching morass that produced the last 232-page contract between Chicago Public Schools and its unionized employees.
That's why the stakes are so high in the Math and Science Academy case. The crux: Are charter school teachers private employees of the charter operator? Or are they public workers, like CPS teachers? That distinction is crucial. Private employees must organize under stringent federal rules, which require a secret vote for teachers to join a union.
The regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled last year that the teachers are public employees who can organize under more lenient state rules. The ruling noted that the teachers work for a school financed largely by public money, and that a 2009 Illinois law explicitly said those teachers can organize under state rules.
The ruling, and the 2009 state law, are being challenged by the Chicago Math and Science Academy. Its lawyers argue that academy teachers are private employees who don't work for a public agency but rather a private charter operator, and therefore must organize under the stringent federal rules.
About that 2009 state law: We supported it because it included an increase in the number of charter schools that could be started in the state. But the price for that — making it easier for unions to organize charter teachers — is coming due. And it is too steep. Illinois instead needs to boost charter independence and innovation.
Lawmakers can start by repealing the 2009 clause that makes it easier for unions to organize charter teachers. They also should equalize funding for charters, so that public school districts can't shortchange them, as they do now.
And charter operators can be smart, too: Pay teachers competitively, offer them training and a strong voice in how to improve instruction and student performance. That's the best way to ensure that charters — and students — flourish.
Illinois needs to help good charters thrive, not choke them with union rules.
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