Unions fight for school control

Marketplace Staff Feb 18, 2010

Unions fight for school control

Marketplace Staff Feb 18, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: The Los Angeles Unified School District already has more than 150 charter schools — 158 to be precise. Next week it’s expected to hand over 36 more new or failing schools to outsiders, charter school groups or nonprofits. Catch is that some of those groups don’t want to work with the powerful Los Angeles teachers union. That means union jobs would be at risk, as well as bargaining power.

So the union is sponsoring groups of its own teachers to run the schools that are up for grabs. Marketplace’s Jennifer Collins reports.

JENNIFER COLLINS: If you’re a first grader in Los Angeles, you’d probably want to be in Josephine Miller’s class.

JOSEPHINE Miller: We do not have homework.

Miller has taught at Hillcrest Drive Elementary for eight years. The school’s in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood. More than three quarters of the kids test below grade level, making Hillcrest one of L.A.’s lowest performing schools.

Miller: I would say, I would be worried about my child in this school.

The L.A. School Board is about to do something about failing schools like Hillcrest. It’s going to let outside groups — like charters and nonprofits — come in and run them. Many of the groups have weak unions or none at all. They argue that union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire ineffective teachers.

CORRI TATE RAVARE: There has to be a commitment to having the best teachers in these classrooms.

Corri Tate Ravare is president of an organization that runs charter schools and is bidding to run Hillcrest. Tate Ravare’s schools renegotiate with teachers every year. Parents also have say about who’s at the blackboard.

TATE RAVARE: They can absolutely demand the best teacher for their kid. There’s no more hiding Mr. or Mrs. so and so because we like them. That’s just not acceptable.

Tate Ravare says her schools judge teachers on how well their students perform. And that’s pretty common at charters. Unions generally oppose that way of evaluating teachers. And with 36 schools changing hands, the union could lose thousands of jobs to charters and nonprofits. So the union is backing groups of its own teachers to take over the schools. Miller, the first grade teacher, is part of a team vying to run Hillcrest.

MILLER: It’s exciting to have an opportunity to create a school that you have envisioned your entire career.

Unions have been helping groups of teachers run schools all over the country — in Boston, Denver, and Milwaukee. AJ Duffy is president of the L.A. teacher’s union. He’s been rallying support around the teachers in his city.

AJ DUFFY: When we win then the world will say that we can do a far better job than a private school or a charter school or an education management company.

How? The Hillcrest teachers say they’d commit to a longer school day, more activities after school. And rather than being judged on student test scores, they’d evaluate each other. Some of those plans may put them at odds with their union contract.

Henry Levin is a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

HENRY LEVIN: There are going to be some challenges because their agreements are not necessarily compatible with this kind of school.

Miller says the teachers are working with the union to make sure their contract gives them the leeway they need.

MILLER: If we fail in this, public education will succumb to privatization.

If they succeed, they will create a school with intensive programs in music, technology and social justice. Each student would get an individual learning plan to bring them to grade level.

Miller: We’re talking about creating a school where kids feel valued and… Why am I crying here?

Miller and fellow teachers have been working on the Hillcrest bid non-stop for months. If the union does hold onto the school, Miller says teachers will not only keep their jobs at Hillcrest, but they’ll finally give themselves a weekend without homework.

I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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