Teacher, Union Man Says ‘Yes’ to Charter Schools

My last eight posts have been about racial disparities in the U.S., what causes them and how the woke narrative on race gets it wrong. I haven’t exhausted that subject yet, but today’s post deviates slightly from the direction of the previous ones. Here, I wrote about teachers’ unions and how they tend to thwart the educational aspirations of black children who, when they get a chance to attend a good school, tend to exceed their performance in union-dominated schools. And, like clockwork, this article shows up to make many of the same points.


The writer is one George Parker. He’s been a public-school teacher in the Washington, D.C. system for 30 years, a union member and served as the president of his local. In short, he’s a union man, dyed in the wool, and he very much believes in their importance. His is the age-old idea that labor and management are forever opposed to each other and that, without union power, employees (in his case, teachers) would be at the mercy of their employers (school districts). In an age in which schools of education supply most of the teachers to those districts and in some cases exercise near-monopoly power over that supply, I don’t see that teachers are exactly helpless, but provisionally accept Parker’s point of view.


The fact that Parker is so pro-union, makes his op-ed all the more persuasive.


Like many union leaders, I had relentlessly negotiated contracts that protected not only teachers’ rights, but their wrongs. As I drove home [from speaking to a third-grade class], I thought about the $10,000 my union had spent to keep a poorly performing teacher in the classroom—not because she deserved another chance, but because of a technicality.


Perhaps that’s what touched me about Parker’s article. During my law practice in the 1980s, I often represented employees in arbitrations against their employers. Back then, a lot of that $10,000 to which Parker refers, would have gone to me. And yes, I represented plenty of “poorly performing” employees. In the business of labor arbitration, that’s often a euphemism for criminals and incompetents. I justified that with the idea that no collective bargaining agreement can precisely reward only good employees and discipline only bad ones. No one can write such a contract and, if a few “bad apples” benefited, well, so be it.


But in my cases, the issue was the rights of a truck driver, warehouse worker or longshoreman, but in a classroom situation, it’s not so limited. That’s because teachers teach kids and kids need good teachers. It’s not just labor vs. management that’s at issue, but children’s education, the future well-being of those kids, their future earnings when they become adults and, to an extent, the stability of society generally. We all want a well-educated society, but in legal terms, children are a “third party” to the contract between labor and management; they’re never represented at the bargaining table. They’re the most important part of the process, but, as I said last time, an afterthought at best.


Which brings us to Parker’s late-life epiphany.


I used to oppose charter schools, not because they were bad for kids, but because they were bad for unions… But I now work on behalf of charter schools.


Notice Parker’s reason for formerly opposing charter schools - “not because they were bad for kids, but because they were bad for unions.” Notice too the inherent opposition between the welfare of children and the power of unions. Recall that, unions and school districts don’t invite children’s representatives to their negotiations. Their interests are presumptively less important than those of labor and management, or perhaps unimportant altogether. If you’re interested in kids, you support charter schools. And if you do that, you stand in opposition to the power of teachers’ unions. George Parker figured that out, or at least some of it:


Charter schools are also public schools. All of them. They provide more than three million students, mostly black and Hispanic, access to a quality public education. They are innovative and student-centered. They break down barriers that have kept families of color from the educational opportunities they deserve. Another two million children would attend charter schools if there were space for them. How could I work against these kids?


Parker’s been a union man for so long, he can’t bring himself to say what needs to be said – that a big part of those “barriers that have kept families of color from the educational opportunities they deserve” has a name – teachers’ unions, i.e., the very ones that, for much of his working life, helped pay his salary. Parker’s trying to straddle two worlds that are diametrically opposed to each other. At some point, I think he’ll have to choose.


Now, the three million kids currently attending charter schools make up less than 1/16th of U.S. children between the ages of six and 18. About 15 million of those kids are black or Hispanic. That means there are millions of kids who could benefit from the opportunities afforded them by charter schools, but who don’t have the chance. Parker says that additional number is two million, but I strongly suspect it’s higher.


No solution to the disproportionately poor performance of black children in primary and secondary schools can ignore the power of teachers’ unions or the opportunity afforded by charter schools. A good education is all but necessary to the type of racially equal society we all say we want. To get there, we’ll have to sharply diminish the power of teachers’ unions by putting a lot more of our money and impetus behind charter schools. If we fail to do those things, we’ll have only ourselves to blame for the racially unequal society that will remain.


Thanks to George Parker for reminding us.

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