- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

As unions move to organize charter-school employees, former D.C. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee rolled out a taut school-reform agenda that pushes charter expansion and public-private vouchers, and she said the untold number of charter teachers she has encountered are not “interested in joining a union.”

Ms. Rhee’s proposal and comments came as the District of Columbia won the No. 1 spot for its charter-school laws, which are touted in a new Center for Education Reform study for supporting school and teacher autonomy. Ms. Rhee supported those efforts as chancellor by pushing union roadblocks aside to institute groundbreaking reforms and broaden school choice.

“I am in favor of employees being able to organize. That said, I’ve met significant numbers of charter-school teachers, none of whom are interested in joining a union,” Ms. Rhee, now head of an organization called Students First, told The Washington Times. “Rather, they are focused on working with the students, parents and administrators in their school to create the best learning environment possible. Work rules and tenure are the least of their concerns.”

Those learning environments, which often include longer school days and weekend classes, are least restrictive when teachers and administrators are free of traditional red tape and parents are encouraged to select the best academic fit for their children.

Labor organizers already wield influence in charter schools in several states, such as New York and New Jersey, as well as Florida, California, Illinois and Michigan.

But charter schools and “union shackles” are incompatible, Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, said Wednesday.

“In states where charters are not granted the freedom and flexibility to provide innovative learning environments for their students, they are not able to fulfill their intended purpose,” Ms. Allen said.

“This is especially true when it comes to their staff. Teachers should be allowed to achieve success in the classroom free of union contracts that could restrict extended school days or additional instruction. At the same time, charters should be empowered to identify and remove staff who are not making the grade for kids. Union shackles are at odds with the nature of charter schools,” she said.

The new study reviewed 40 states and the District of Columbia on their charter-school laws, and graded them on the number of authorizers, schools allowed, fiscal equity and operations, including autonomy, teacher freedom and union influence.

D.C. charter laws ranked No. 1 on all criteria, with two other jurisdictions — second-place Minnesota and third-place California — also earning an A. Minnesota was the first state to establish charter schools, doing so in 1991.

Virginia ranked 40th out of 41, one of four states to earn an F — the others being Kansas, Iowa and Mississippi.

Maryland wasn’t much better — placing 35th, or seventh from bottom.

New York ranked as the seventh strongest even though its “union-forced rules dominate some aspects of charter [school] contracts,” the report said.

But the state got good marks because it raised its cap on the number of charter schools in 2010, grants a blanket waiver on most centralized rules and regulations, and grants limited autonomy based on individual schools’ enrollment numbers.

A total of 14 states earned a C, largely attributed to funding inequities and the lack of autonomy. For example, while New Jersey’s laws allow teachers in new charter schools to negotiate contracts as a unit or as individuals, teachers in traditional schools that convert to charters retain collective-bargaining agreements and their schools must participate in the state’s retirement system.

With Ms. Rhee looking on Wednesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called union demands problematic for school reform and fiscal responsibility.

Promising to push merit pay, end tenure and expand charters, the Republican governor said in his State of the State address, “Teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure to perform.”

He also vowed to trim the rising costs of union pensions, which he called “this cloud that hangs over us and almost every state in the union.”

Ms. Rhee, who implemented a teacher-evaluation plan that continues to draw heavy union criticism, is an educational adviser to top officials in New Jersey, Florida and several other states.

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