When public schools reopen in September, one of the most closely watched in the nation could be the former Intermediate School 292 in Brooklyn, NY. That’s because it will become a rarity in the realm of school reform – a charter school of choice run by a teacher union.
The Trustees of the State University of New York, one of multiple school-chartering authorities in the Empire State, recently approved the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to operate a public charter school that this fall will offer the first two grades of what will eventually be a K-5 school. The UFT hopes to open a second charter school for grades 6-12 at a separate site in 2006.
This endorsement of the charter school model represents an important turn for the UFT, which just two years ago called for a moratorium on all new charter schools in its home state of New York. It should also signify a significant step forward for the charter movement at large.
The flagship union of the AFT (the American Federation of Teachers), the UFT traces its lineage to the late union pioneer Albert Shanker, who, after helping unionize New York teachers in the 1960s, displayed uncommon openness within the labor movement to the idea of empowering parents as a way to improve public education.
In reporting to its members on the UFT’s Brooklyn charter school, the AFT (which Shanker later headed from 1974 to 1997) pointed with pride to Shanker’s reformist legacy, noting that Shanker is credited with originating the idea of innovative schools run by groups of teachers freed from many administrative regulations in return for providing a top-notch education.
However, AFT’s national leadership virtually declared war on all charter schools at the union’s 2000 national convention. Since then, AFT has produced streams of anti-charter school analysis.
In addition, the AFT’s attempt to distinguish between ‘good’ teacher-run charter schools and ‘bad’ ones operated by profit-making companies has largely ignored the fact that many of the nation’s 3,400 charter schools already are run by teachers (albeit not by unions) and parents, and relatively few are run for profit.
Charter schools under a variety of managers – including community activists, unions and nonprofit organizations – offer viable alternatives to public schools that persistently fail to meet federal No Child Left Behind or state education standards. The most comprehensive charter school research to date, by Harvard University’s Caroline Hoxby, has shown that students in established charter schools score significantly higher on state reading and mathematics tests than their peers in conventional neighborhood public schools.
Hopefully, the UFT charter school will emerge as an important example of how the charter model can represent an attractive option for students and teachers alike. If this can also soften the AFT’s hard line against the possibilities of parental choice as envisioned by Al Shanker, that would be a major step forward for school reform.
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