Category Archives: Teacher Unions

What will be the stable charter school and teacher union equilibrium?

It appears Kentucky may pass a charter school law.

News recently broke that Noble charter schools may become unionized.

Where is this all heading?

The Forces at Work: Charter Market Share will Continue to Rise 

Charter market share will continue to rise because (a) 40+ states allow charters and this number is increasing and (b) once a charter school is open it is difficult to close.

Yes, policies like charter school caps and moratoriums may slow charter growth down, but it will be incredibly difficult for union leaders to fully stop charters from growing in a world where charters are legal in 90% of states. Rolling back laws in this many states is unlikely.

Charter market share will continue to grow.

The Forces at Work: Unions Organize Where the Teachers Are 

A simple consequence of rising charter market share is a rise in the number of teachers who work at charter schools.

Unions received dues (and power) from having as many teachers as possible enrolled as members.

The more charter schools there are, the more it will be be worthwhile for unions to attempt to organize these teachers, for both financial and political purposes.

The Future of Union Incentives 

So we’re basically going to be in multi-round unionization game between unions and charter schools.

Most importantly, this new game (unionizing a lot of charters) will have very different incentives than the old game (unionizing a local monopoly).

Under the old game, the unions paid a relatively small price for being obstructionist: with only one school operator in town (the district), they didn’t have to worry too much about how their actions affected the performance or reputation of that school operator.

In the new game, the union has a new incentive structure: if they are overly obstructionist, they will reduce their ability  to unionize more charters in the future; however, if they are not obstructionist enough, unionizing a charter won’t slow down the growth of that operator (which is in the unions interest, as they want the district to last as long as possible, as it’s the easiest entity to unionize).

The unions thus want to add value to unionized teachers and at the same time hobble charter school growth.

The ideal play for unions is to: (a) unionize charter schools  (b) demonstrate value to their unionized charter teachers so they can unionize future schools (c) slow down the enrollment growth of unionized charter schools  (d) avoid having unionized charter schools go down in flames so they can unionize future schools.

My Guess

The conditions for charter school unionization are favorable compared to other sectors of the economy: you have a long history of unionization, strong and well-financed existing unions, an inability to outsource to other states or countries, and weak accountability for performance (compared to the financial market).

All of this bodes well for unionization.

But unionizing charters will require unions to moderate their behavior and become less antagonist with management, as they will be working in a market of providers rather than a district monopoly. This will require significant change in their leadership and culture. This is hard to do.

So where are we heading?

One interesting comparison group is nurses, which generally operate in a non-profit, physically anchored, and heavily regulated environment.

Overall, about 20% of nurses belong to a union.

And while most industries have seen declining union membership, nursing union membership has risen over the past 15 years.


I think we will see the same thing happen in the charter sector.

That being said, given that unions have to independently organize each charter organization (which is very expensive), and that their success will be predicated on cultural change, I don’t think we’ll quickly move into a world of 100% charter unionization.

But will we see 20% of charter school teachers (compared to ~7% right now) organized in unions over the next decade or so?

I think so.

Should Charter School Teachers Trust Teacher Unions?

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The Washington state Supreme Court just ruled that charter schools, as they are currently funded in the state, are unconstitutional.

I know nothing about Washington’s constitution so will not offer any thoughts on the ruling.


The above screenshot is from the website of the Washington Education Association, which is the local NEA affiliate. The press release includes the following:

“The Supreme Court has affirmed what we’ve said all along – charter schools steal money from our existing classrooms, and voters have no say in how these charter schools spend taxpayer funding,” said Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association.


Recently, Rachael Cohen wrote a piece in The American Prospect entitled “When Charters Go Union.” From the article:

Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing, says that as more charter teachers began approaching her union, the NEA started to see them as educators who should be treated no differently from anyone else.

So do charter schools steal money from public schools or do they consist of educators who should be treated no differently from anyone else?


I believe that charter school teachers should have the right to organize.

But if I were a charter school teacher, I would not affiliate with any union whose leaders publicly state that charter schools steal money from public schools. Nor would I affiliate with any union whose local sites sue to prevent charter schools from existing.

Given my beliefs on education policy, I found this labor day weekend to be a disappointing one for the modern education labor movement.

Charter school teachers would do well to remember, that on this labor day at least, the leading national teacher union celebrated the abolition of charter schools in the state of Washington.

Just Because a Teachers Union Cannot Manage a School Does Not Mean We Should Ignore the Teachers Union

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In New York City, a United Federation of Teachers founded charter school is closing for poor performance.

In 2014, 1.2 percent of seventh-graders at the school scored proficiently on state reading tests. 2 percent of eighth-graders reached proficiency in math.

In arguing that the school should stay open, the head of the union stated: “a student or a school is more than a test score.”

Perhaps. But a school’s quality is reflected, in part, by its test scores. And this school appears to be terrible.


1. The fact that the UFT cannot operate a school does not mean it can’t be a credible voice for its members. Labor should have a voice, even if the body for this voice is a poor school manager.

2. The UFT is  consistent in its fighting against school closures. It also argues that poor performing district schools should remain open.

So what have we learned?

We’ve learned that the UFT is a bad manager of schools and that it does not support the closure of failing schools.

Neither of these facts is surprising to me.

I hope the students find better opportunities elsewhere, like here.

Teacher Unions, Reformers, and Language



Valerie Strauss, a frequent critic of education reform, interviewed Lily Eskelsen García, the new head of the NEA (national teachers union).

There is much to be unpacked from the interview. 

What I Found Effective in Garcia’s use of Language:

1. Testing: At her best, she does an excellent job of criticizing testing, especially when she connects it to the realities of a teacher’s life in the classroom, as well as the idea that a teacher could get fired because of a formula.

2. Straw men: While I find straw men arguments to be disingenuous, they are effective – pitting reformers against Shakespeare and blood drives (I did not know reformers had taken a stance against either), plays well into the stereotype that reformers are cold technocrats who are far removed from the classroom.

3. Corporate education reform: This continues to be the most effective rhetoric against the reform community. In one phrase, it (1) calls out the influence of the rich (2) plays on people’s dislike of cut throat corporations and (3) covers up the fact that many reformers are in fact educators. 

I also found much of her language to be ineffective, but I’ll leave that analysis up to her colleagues.

My Thoughts on Messaging for the Reform Community:

The reform community really needs to win (at least) two messaging battles: families and policy makers. Generally speaking, reformers have done very well with policy makers, so I’ll focus on how to message to families. As a caveat, I’m by no means a communication expert, but I’ve thought about this issue a bit (and gotten advice from real experts, as well as had access to polling data and focus groups). 

1. Talk about the childhood experience: Talk about what means for a child to attend a great school – arts, sports, literature, caring teachers, etc. I think parents actually do care about performance on tests (which is why I support public school letter grades), but it’s not the way to their hearts. Parents want to their children to be inspired and engaged. 

2. Talk about the future: Families care whether their children will be prepared for college and career. This is much more real to them than school level accountability. Reformers need to talk about what it will take to prepare children to live a meaningful, successful life. 

3. Be inclusive: Reforms can’t just be for some kids (those that get into the best charter schools, those that aren’t expelled, etc.). Families need to know that everyone, including their child, will benefit from these new opportunities. To some extent, this was the initial genius of the phrase “No Child Left Behind.”

Some Reflections

1. Relinquish vs. Reform: It’s worth noting that Relinquishment (charters, choice, etc.) is in many ways more amenable than Reform (teachers evaluations, testing, etc.) to the positive messaging suggested above. This is not to say that all Reform efforts are all bad – just that they are more difficult to communicate. As I’ve noted before, charters poll very well. 

2. This is the time of Obama: For now, I think we’re in a national communications paradigm where positive messaging will win the day. This could of course change – different messaging works in different social contexts. Of course, well placed negative messaging has its place. But I don’t think these messages will win the day. 

All told, I think those seeking to reform public education, myself included, have a very mixed track record on messaging.