What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?
Would it still be a vampire?
That’s the question at the heart of a major change in the largest charter school network in western Pennsylvania.
This week, staff at the Propel network of charter schools voted overwhelmingly to unionize.
So the money men behind the Allegheny County system of charter schools are probably wondering if they’re still investing in charter schools at all.
After all, when encumbered by the need to collectively bargain with employees, can a charter still do all its usual profitizing tricks?
Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).
The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.
Though PSEA represents staff at about a dozen charters throughout the state, unionization is a rarity at charter schools.
And the reason is pretty obvious.
Charter schools are all about escaping the rules that authentic public schools have to abide by.
Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.
They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.
They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.
Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!
I’m not saying every charter school does all this, but they all can. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and we rarely even see it happening until the school goes belly up and taxpayers are left paying the tab.
So how do unions change this system?
Most obviously, they put a check on the nearly limitless power of the charter operators.
Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!
How much will union power beat back charter bosses?
It’s hard to say. But there is no doubt that it will play a moderating influence.
And how much it does so may depend to a large degree on the individuals working at the school and the degree of solidarity they can exercise against their bosses.
One thing is for sure, with a union the gravy train is over.
Wall Street speculators often fawn over the charter industry because it’s possible to double or triple your investment in seven years.
This will probably not be the case in a unionized charter. And the impact of such a reality has yet to be felt.
Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.
If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.
Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.
However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.
There still remains an authentic public school with which the charter must compete for limited funding.
Even a positive charter school that only does the best for its students still needs money to operate. And most districts barely have enough funding for one education system – certainly not two parallel ones.
This is a problem I don’t think unions can solve.
The state and federal government will have to find a better way to fund education. Relying on local property taxes to make up the largest share as we do in most parts of the country must come to an end.
But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice.
Fiscal watchdogs may object to this as irresponsible, and one can certainly see their point.
However, in a country where we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined, perhaps it isn’t so much to ask that we more than double spending on education.
Maybe there is something to be gained by having two parallel school systems. But there are certainly dangers.
Obviously the situation would be rife for de facto segregation. Charter schools already increase racial and economic segregation wherever these schools exist. However, if we regulated them to eliminate this risk, it is at least conceivable that these two systems could coexist.
It could certainly solve the problem of large class sizes by decreasing student to teacher ratios.
But will it?
Most of the people who work at charter schools are dedicated to their students and want them to succeed. They deserve every opportunity to thrive in a profession centered around children, not profit.
But can a system created to enrich the few ever be fully rehabilitated into one that puts children first?
When you defang a charter school, are you left with something harmless?
Or have you simply forced the beast to find other ways to feed?
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