Can Teachers Unions Do Education Reform?
A WSJ article about Steve Barr and how building great charter schools that are unionized – but with a very different type of union:
Democratic activist Steve Barr thinks he's found a solution for improving schools without jettisoning collective bargaining: Reformed unionism. Is this an oxymoron or the real deal?
"You can't go into and change an 80-to-90 percent unionized industry without unionized labor," Mr. Barr, CEO of Future Is Now Schools, explains. Toyota and Honda might beg to differ, but Mr. Barr is determined to prove that unions can be forces for good in education.
A former national finance chairman of the Democratic Party, Mr. Barr established the charter-school organization Green Dot in 1999 to help fix a system in which nearly half of the city's public-school students don't graduate. And he wanted to do so with unionized teachers.
Today, nine of 10 Green Dot grads are considered by the state to be prepared for California's public universities, compared to three in 10 at Los Angeles's public schools. What's more, three-quarters of Green Dot grads go onto a four-year college.
Green Dot's success is possible, Mr. Barr says, because its teachers aren't part of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA)—L.A.'s dominant, 35,000-strong union—but rather the fledgling Asociacion de Maestros Unido (AMU). The AMU's collective-bargaining agreement is 33 pages, ghastly thin compared to UTLA's 330-page monster. The biggest difference is that Green Dot teachers don't have tenure. Oh, and their contract doesn't regulate everything from access to bulletin boards to student codes of conduct. The model, says Mr. Barr, helps answer a crucial question: "Are [bad teachers] the union's fault or the system's fault?"
But some might say unions and the "system" are one and the same. Proxies of teachers unions dominate school boards since unions are usually the only groups that organize in school-board elections. School administrators belong to a union within the AFL-CIO, just like the American Federation of Teachers. And the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) help run the accrediting body that dictates policy at university schools of education. The school system, in other words, is vertically and horizontally integrated by the unions.
Mr. Barr acknowledges that the unions have created an "undemocratic feel," with "lots of meetings that aren't posted" and "a handful of people [in] control," most of whom have been "going at it for a long time." Yet he sees opportunities for reform not only in new unions, as at Green Dot, but within the existing behemoths.
- CROSS COUNTRY
- Updated March 5, 2012, 11:20 a.m. ET