- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Maybe there can be too much of a good thing. That appears to be the lesson to take from two kinds of school choice — charter schools and education voucher programs — that have enjoyed increasing success in recent years. As voucher programs come of age and charter schools proliferate, they are both threatened by the tedious mandates and workplace rules they were created to circumvent.

And the implacable enemies of school choice, teacher unions, have supporters between a rock and hard place. They say they will give up their old hostility, but there’s a catch: First schools must be unionized and regulated by government.

Over the past decade, many parents and growing numbers of teachers and principals have given big votes of confidence to charter schools. This innovation in public schooling allows individual public schools to break free of centralized school bureaucracies.

Governed by individual school boards, charter schools let school principals make big decisions on the structure and content of education. Unlike traditional public schools, charter school principals can decide to lengthen the school day, dismiss poor teachers and reward great ones, and make other changes that teacher union contracts usually outlaw. That flexibility may soon be a thing of the past if increasing numbers of teachers at charter schools unionize.

In 2007, teachers at seven charter schools in Florida voted to allow the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation’s second-largest teacher union, to represent school staff. Last year, charter unionization gathered steam, as unions organized staff at dozens of charters from New York to California. These schools include Steve Barr’s large network of Green Dot charter schools in Los Angeles and well-regarded Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools in New York and Baltimore. The AFT union even operates two charter schools.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Unions used to fight charter schools tooth and nail. But now, says AFT President Randi Weingarten, “You’re going to see far more union representation in charter schools.” She adds: “We had a group of schools that were basically unorganized, groups of teachers wanting a voice, a union willing to start organizing them, and now money in our organizing budget to back that up.”

Charters schools also face the specter of more government regulation for the sake of “accountability.” “You can’t do one without the other,” observes Ms. Weingarten. Her message is embraced by Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education. After a Stanford University report found that the quality of charter schools varied widely, Mr. Duncan warned that only high-quality charters should be allowed to operate. (However, he did not recommend closing tens of thousands of traditional public schools where similar disparities exist.)

As government policies and union rules force charter schools to look and act the same as traditional public schools, more parents may demand publicly funded vouchers to send their children to high-performing private schools. Today in Milwaukee, which operates the oldest and largest voucher program in the country, about 120 of the city’s private schools serve 20,000 voucher students.

Unfortunately, schools that want to join the voucher rolls face increased state regulation. In 2006, the Wisconsin state Legislature authorized Marquette University’s New Schools Approval Board to control entry of schools into Milwaukee’s education voucher program.

After intense negotiations, the Approval Board has decided that private schools that want public funds must administer standardized tests and report the results. They also must comply with other measures demanded of public schools such as only hiring teachers with bachelor’s degrees and meeting the same number of hours of instruction as public schools.

A key figure in the process is Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent, who has been the most prominent advocate for voucher schools for more than a decade. Mr. Fuller now heads the institute at Marquette that runs the Approval Board.

Last month, the board evaluated 19 schools and gave the green light to only three. They were existing schools that had not previously received voucher payments. No start-up schools were admitted to the voucher program.

Let’s be clear: These were private schools. But they were regulated by a board authorized by the state and were required to meet standards like those required of public charter schools.

Supporters of school choice argue that competition among schools will improve education for all students. A market in education will benefit public education by creating incentives for improving schooling.

But that won’t happen if unions and bureaucrats make all the decisions for private schools and local charter schools. That has always been the danger. Wherever there is public money, there is regulation. Instead of promoting more innovation and independence, the concept of school choice may simply be increasing public control over the private market in education.

Phil Brand is director of Education Watch at the Capital Research Center.

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