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Rare Alliance May Signal Ebb In Union's Charter Opposition

I didn't see many other reporters Tuesday in the narrow, second-floor meeting room of the Phoenix Park Hotel in the District. A U.S. senator's party switch and new National Assessment of Educational Progress data were a bigger draw. But in the long term, the news conference at the hotel might prove a milestone in public education. It isn't often you see a leading teachers union announce it is taking money from what many of its members consider the enemy: corporate billionaires who have been bankrolling the largely nonunion charter school movement.

Of course, it might turn out to be just another publicity stunt. But the people gathered, and what they said, impressed me.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, unveiled the first union-led, private foundation-supported effort to provide grants to AFT unions nationwide to develop and implement what she called "bold education innovations in public schools." The advisory board of the AFT Innovation Fund includes celebrities of my education wonk world: former Cleveland schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson and even Caroline Kennedy, well known for other reasons but identified at the conference as an important fundraiser for New York schools.

The news release gushed about all the research by teachers that the $2.8 million fund would support, but I was more interested in the sources of the money, particularly the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I would have been less surprised to see President Obama receive a campaign contribution from former vice president Richard B. Cheney.

Consider the rivalries involved. Mice abhor cats. Redskins dislike Cowboys. Regular public school educators (particularly union members) and public charter school educators have a similarly adversarial relationship. Educators at regular public schools often tell me that charter schools -- also public but independent of school system rules -- are siphoning their funds and students. Charter people say regular public schools are captives of listless bureaucracies. The Washington Post last week announced for the first time separate awards for top D.C. regular and charter school leaders, because there seemed no chance to get the two sides to cooperate on picking the winners.

The Broad and Gates foundations have been on the charter schools' side for a long time. In the District, where the teachers union is an AFT local, this divide gets personal. Broad and Gates people have been friendly to D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, one of the few superintendents in the country who supports charters. Broad is thought to be one of the foundations promising to help fund Rhee's offer to give teachers big salary increases in return for surrendering tenure protections. Weingarten has much to say about how the D.C. teacher contract negotiations proceed, but she has given no sign of embracing Rhee's plan.

So why is she accepting the foundations' money? Her friends and adversaries say she always thinks several moves ahead. When I asked why she was dealing with foundations whose support for charters is so unpopular with her members, she replied, "The ties that bind us are so much greater than the squabbles that divide us." AFT founder Al Shanker, she noted, was one of the first to suggest the charter concept, and AFT-run charters operate in New York.

It could be, as some cynics insist, that Weingarten is just trying to look reasonable and impress empty-headed optimists like me. She might have no intention of negotiating away the job protections that nonunion charter leaders can ignore as they create teacher teams to raise student achievement. But I think it is more than that. Younger teachers going into regular and charter schools, and into the AFT, appear more willing than older teachers to give up tenure for more pay and more impact on student achievement. Their friends working for Google and McKinsey and Goldman Sachs don't have tenure. Why should they? Teachers in the most successful charters are working longer hours but being paid more and having the satisfaction of seeing great improvement in their students. What's wrong with that?

Weingarten hears those voices. I think she wants to stay ahead of the generational shift. The GothamSchools Web site says she offered recently to stop using the word "tenure" if that will help win agreement on due process for teachers in trouble.

I struggle to understand union strategy and politics, usually too far from the classroom to interest me. But is it so crazy to think that, eventually, Weingarten will join Rhee in giving D.C. teachers a new and innovative contract, just as she has joined with Rhee's foundation friends to create a new fund for teacher innovation?


By Washington Post Editors  | May 4, 2009; 11:08 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  American Federation of Teachers, charter schools  
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Next: Admissions 101: Why Aren't More Students Taking AP Classes?


I have heard from many teachers who had merit pay offers, that when it came time to get that additional money funds were no longer there; so they gave up tenure or the usual increase in pay for the merit scheme (FCPS is one that has recent history with this) only to find themselves never actually receiving the money owed them..i.e. they earned the merit pay, but then the county had a budget crunch (early 90's for FCPS if you want to check it out)

One other comment; you wrote this "Teachers in the most successful charters are working longer hours but being paid more and having the satisfaction of seeing great improvement in their students."

Great improvement? Data please..I have only seen conflicting analysis of this, and if one set of data does show improvement, it has been quite slight..not great improvement.

Posted by: researcher2 | May 4, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

I share researcher2's appreciation of data. I get about 10 calls a week about great programs and have to tell them its not a story until they have some data. Here is the best of the charter school data so far: the first 1,800 students to have completed four years of a KIPP middle school have gone from the 41st to the 80th percentile in math and from the 31st to the 58th percentile in reading, on the
Stanford 10. These tests are administered by KIPP personnel, so worth a grain of salt, but they reflect results that the same kids are showing on state tests, which are usually proctored by outsiders. KIPP is the most studied of all the charter networks, and all the other reports of their achievement gains so far have pronounced them significant and valid. There will be many more studies of KIPP, so eventually we will have a pretty complete picture.

Posted by: Jay_Mathews | May 4, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Is the Stanford 10 similar to the Stanford 9? If so, KIPP isn't administering the test, merely proctoring it as the Standford is a norm-referenced test created by others than KIPP; and actually, if your data is accurate, the gains are significant.

Did they do annual pre and post tests, or just a 4 year assessment with the Stanford? If only the 4 year were the same students tested? In other words perhaps there was a significant drop in students due to issues with the contracts (have heard some families drop out) and new students enrolled to make the full class.

So KIPP is studied more than Edison, more than the Broad Foundation charter schools? Or is just that you are more familiar with KIPP due to your book?

And really, ALL of the data on KIPP show the results you are claiming (significant and valid)?

Posted by: researcher2 | May 4, 2009 8:21 PM | Report abuse

I used the word administer in its nontechnical sense---they schedule the exams, hand out the tests, watch the kids and send the sheets off to the testing company. You are right, the Stanford 10 (similar to the Stanford (9) folks do the scoring. They give an incoming Stanford 10 (this is at most KIPP schools, a few use a different off the shelf test) to new fifth graders, then give it to all grades each spring. Those figures are longitudinal, comparing those individual students fifth grade incoming scores to their outgoing 8th grade scores. These are of course the kids who stayed all 4 years. Many left before they were done, usually because their families moved, but in many cases because they did not like KIPP, for various reasons such as too much homework, too many demands compared to regular schools, etc. KIPP does indeed, as far as I can tell have more independent studies than Edison, and certainly Broad, and the Mathematica study of KIPP now underway will be the biggest in charter school history. Not all of the studies on KIPP are detailed enough to claim to be significant and valid, but they all have positive conclusions, so far.

Posted by: jaymathews | May 4, 2009 9:46 PM | Report abuse

Since when does Michele Rhee have a lock on the "foundation friends" Broad and Gates? Find me a town where a think tank, a foundation, a school system, a partnership is operating and has never received a dollar from a foundation. Michele Rhee is neither a foundation OG, nor does she have a novel relationship with foundations. This may be a minor quibble given the lede, but the stargazing with which Matthews ends his op-ed is a little silly.

Posted by: umbriell | May 7, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

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