Lobbying in Disguise: The American Federation of Teachers "Studies" Charter Schools. (Check the Facts)

By Maranto, Robert | Education Next, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Lobbying in Disguise: The American Federation of Teachers "Studies" Charter Schools. (Check the Facts)


Maranto, Robert, Education Next


Do Charter Schools Measure Up? The Charter School Experiment After 10 Years

American Federation of Teachers, 2002.

Teacher unions are pulled in different directions. On the one hand, many of their staffers have devoted their lives to education and are genuinely committed to improving schools. Indeed, under the late Al Shanker, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was known for toughminded talk on issues like standards, testing, and failing schools.

On the other hand, as unions their primary mission is to protect the welfare of their members. Sometimes the interests of teachers and students are aligned, but not always. For instance, unions have steadfastly defended policies that undermine education reform, such as: No junior teacher, however competent and in demand, should ever be paid more than someone who has been on the job longer. No teacher, however talented and knowledgeable, may enter a classroom without state certification. In a 1997 speech, Bob Chase of the National Education Association (NEA) declared, "If there is a bad teacher in one of our schools, then we must do something about it." The union acted as if this were a bold, meaningful concession. To the rest of us it was a no-brainer.

The national unions deliver the occasional encomiums to accountability. However, such rhetoric is rarely matched by action among their relatively autonomous local satellites, like the United Federation of Teachers in New York. Charged with negotiating actual contracts, these tend to behave more like traditional urban unions, defending their members at every turn, no matter what the consequences for schools. After all, serious academic standards might highlight the poor performance of some teachers, who might face sanctions (like--shock!--being fired). Likewise, school choice would empower parents, who might choose nonunionized private and charter schools.

Nowhere have we seen a better example of the unions' clumsy attempts to straddle representation and reform than in the AFT'S handling of charter schools. Consider the AFT'S recently released "study" of charter schools, Do Charter Schools Measure Up? The Charter School Experiment After 10 Years. The report touts the fact that Shanker supported charter schools, but then claims that "these schools are a diversion from reformers' and policymakers' efforts to improve education in America' It alleges that a review of the research on charter schools leads to the conclusions that, overall, charter schools: 1) fail to raise student achievement more than traditional district schools do; 2) aren't innovative and don't pass innovations along to district schools; 3) exacerbate the racial and ethnic isolation of students; 4) provide a worse environment for teachers than district schools; and 5) spend more on administration and less on instruction than public schools. With all this evidence apparently stacked against chart er schools, it seems downright responsible of the AFT to call for a moratorium on further charter school expansion "until more convincing evidence of their effectiveness and viability is presented."

If only that were all true. The AFT's conclusions, you'll see, are based on a selective reading of the research, shameless spinning of research findings, and a failure to place findings in context. The report ignores the judgments of parents and students, uses bizarre definitions of such terms as innovation and accountability, compares charter schools with the ideal school rather than with traditional district schools, and presents confusing and out-of-context discussions of such admittedly complex matters as school finance and student achievement. In short, the report poses as serious research, but is more about lobbying than a search for clarity.

Definitions

There is no doubt that the AFT cites some good research, usually accurately. For instance, the AFT acknowledges, after some hemming and hawing, that most charter schools spend less public money than most district schools. …

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