Minnesota, one of the leading states in the charter-school idea, how has a new player in charter schools: a teachers union.

According to Governing magazine, “Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools became the first charter authorizer in the United States to be sponsored by a teachers union.” (See also Minnesota Public Radio. Your taxes support it; you might as well use it.)

One key idea of charter schools is to strip away some of the red tape. Another is to allow for more experimentation (pedagogy, curriculum, what have you) than is allowed in the traditional public school. Authorizers don’t actually run charter schools; instead, they oversee a contract (“charter”) that it holds with the school’s board of directors.

The guild is an effort of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which in turn got some financial help from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT is the second-largest teacher union in the country, second only to the National Education Association (NEA) in membership. (In Minnesota, the two have combined into “Education Minnesota.”)

In an op-ed published by the Star-Tribune the head of the MFT argues that unions and charter schools can and should go hand-in-hand. Lynn Nordgren says, “As professional educators and union members, we want and need to be part of the charter school conversation.”

That sounds good. My first response is, “the more, the merrier.” But is the union happy talk believable?

Unions have to date been quite absent from the charter-school scene. In fact, only 604 of the nation’s 4,315 charter schools (12 percent) have collective bargaining agreements. Most of the time, those 604 schools got a union contract because state law required it. Only 9 percent of charter schools build from the ground up are unionized, suggesting that people looking at charter schools as a way to start with a new slate don’t think that a union is helpful. Furthermore, some commentators have observed that teacher unions have

Several leaders in the pro-reform community say that unions present a danger to the charter school idea.

Writing two years ago, Jay P. Greene, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, said that “Despite their proclamations about supporting charters, the actions of unions and their allies in state and national politics belie their rhetoric.” Unions, he says, “may say they support charter schools, but they only support charters after they have stripped them of everything that makes charters different from district schools.”

More recently, Kyle Olson, head of a union watchdog Education Action Group, warned that unions still “desire to co-opt (and ultimately destroy) charter schools remains.” He cites one local union boss who says that if charter schools become more and more subjected to the rules (including those in union contracts) that govern traditional public schools, they will “dry up.”

In her Star-Tribune essay, Nordgren paid tribute to one-time (and now deceased) AFT president Al Shanker, saying “The original vision of public charter schools” espoused by Shanker “was inspiring.” But it’s clear, given the large sums we’ve spent on schools for (at best) modest improvements in performance and governance that fundamental changes are required. Can we get them from unionized charter schools? Charter schools authorized by public school unions? Paul E. Peterson, professor at Harvard, says that union solidarity with the charter school model has been extremely qualified. While Shanker did support support the idea of charter schools (before there ever was one), it was based on the assumption that his union would still be a key player. “For Shanker and his heirs, the collective bargaining agreement always came first.” Once it became clear that charter schools could be run without unions, Shanker lost his enthusiasm.

Norgren, in her op-ed, claims that many charter schools are substandard (true) and that union oversight will lead to high quality schools (debatable, given the record of, well, the non-charter public schools that we know today).

If union leaders, and especially unionized teachers, are tired of micromanagement by district employees and state and local politicians, I can appreciate that. It’s normal and probably good for an employee to say “nobody knows this job as well as I do.” And to be sure, there plenty of laws and regulations that stifle good teachers. Unfortunately, much of the burden that bears down on teachers has been imposed by the unions themselves.

As a rule, I’m all in favor of less regulation of any organization, rather than more. So I’ll make an offer to the teachers union, and I would offer it even if there were no charter schools around: Let’s repeal most state and federal laws governing schools, and fire administrators wholesale. You run the show at your district. At the same time, let’s make it easy for any one to start a school (no teacher licensing requirements, for example) and make it easy for children to attend whatever school their parents want (including religious schools). To quote a famous and thankfully dead political leader, “let a thousand flowers bloom,” and with that, competing methods of running, credentialing, and monitoring schools. And then we’ll let the millions of voluntary choices made by parents, taxpayers, teachers, school leaders, and other parties shape the educational landscape.

Will they buy this offer? Of course not. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the first priority of a union leader is to continue to be a union leader, and after that, to maintain the power of the union. So while it’s good that Minnesota has another organization that will oversee charter schools, legislators and the people ought to make sure they oversee the union.


Update: In reviewing an article about the development in the trade newsweekly Education Week, I find this comment: “A separate report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education, also out today, finds that despite more flexibility in some areas, like work hours, unionized charter schools often contain the same kinds of step-and-lane pay scales, due process, and grievance procedures (though expedited) as those in public schools.” The report itself says, “while these new contracts innovate in many ways, they could go much further given the opportunity to create contracts from scratch.”

Will a union-created authorizer of charter schools be willing to oversee a non-unionized charter school? If not, the distinction between its charter schools and those of a traditional public school may not as great as it could be.