Union Dues

The fall 2009 issue of Ed Next included an article I wrote about some remarkable charter schools in Albany—the nine schools in the Brighter Choice network. In that article, I described how the teachers union (the New York State United Teachers) had fought hard to limit the role charters could play in Albany and elsewhere in New York.

The latest issue of Ed Next includes a letter to the editor from Richard Iannuzzi of the NYSUT in response to my article.  Iannuzzi claims that “New York’s anti-union charter spokesmen misstated” the union’s position on charter schools.

I’d love to cede Mr. Iannuzzi his charge that the union’s position on charter schools was misrepresented – if he were only a bit more precise about what that position is.

If NYSUT does indeed support charters and accountability, as he now claims, he might have at least come clean about the group’s miraculous conversion, from charter terrorizer to devotee. As he told the Albany Times Union just a couple of months ago (October 5, 2009), “I’ll be the first to admit I was one of the staunchest opponents (of charters) and waged a real battle in my own school district in Central Islip.”

In fact, NYSUT, which Iannuzzi has headed since 2005, has waged a scorched-earth campaign against New York charters for years, dipping into a billion-dollar war chest to do so. And his aw-shucks manner – just little ol’ me in Central Islip – certainly misrepresents the geography of his union’s campaign, which stretched from Babylon to Buffalo, Staten Island to Schroon Lake and every school district in between.

No doubt something’s changed at NYSUT. The question is whether it’s a change of heart or tactics.

There is neither time nor space to do a worthy textual analysis of Iannuzzi’s letter, but just his notion of accountability should give us pause about a reborn NYSUT. How does he propose to hold charters accountable? “The cap,” he told Newsday on September 5, referring to the restriction on the number of charters (200) currently allowed in New York, “The cap in effect – for the moment, anyway – is the only real way to hold charters accountable.”

Ummm. Perhaps we could get that kind of accountability for traditional public schools as well.

And I wonder what message Mr. Iannuzzi delivered to Arne Duncan on his recent trip from Washington to New York aboard Air Force Two with Vice President Joe Biden and the Education Secretary. The union leader reportedly made a case for New York getting a piece of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top funds, but he better hope the Secretary hasn’t read the NYSUT clip file. As Peter Murphy of the New York Charter School Association noted (here), “what states are doing with charter schools… adds up to 40 points on the Department of Education’s scoring rubric, or 8 percent of the total points for a Race to the Top grant. That is a lot of points, which puts New York at a disadvantage.” Does anyone think that Mr. Duncan has the same definition of charter “support” and “accountability” as Mr. Iannuzzi?

The substantive issue here, of course, is whether charter schools work – and why they work. The evidence, increasingly, suggests that they do work. Caroline Hoxby’s “remarkable study” of New York City’s charters, as John Merrow describes it (see here) would surely suggest that they do: “The lottery winners [those who attended the charters] went to 48 public charter schools, and those who finished 8th grade performed nearly as well as students in affluent suburban districts, closing what the researchers call the “Harlem- Scarsdale achievement gap” by 86 percent in math and about two-thirds in English.”

And according to the Charter Schools Institute of the State University of New York, which authorizes nearly half of the charter schools in New York, 86% of all SUNY-authorized charter schools outperformed their local districts on state ELA exams. Of the 40 SUNY-authorized charter schools with test results, five of them saw 100% of their students proficient in math; another 31 SUNY charter schools had more than 80% of students proficient in math. (See here.)

Certainly, the Brighter Choice charters of Albany have proven what’s possible. And their operators have a pretty good idea as to at least one of the key ingredients of success: no unions. And my guess is that Mr. Iannuzzi has his sights set on changing that. No doubt, now that NYSUT likes charters, this will be the next battleground.

But that should also be the focus of the next generation of research on charters: what is the impact of union rules on academic performance?  Can a school have the nimbleness that many charter operators say is so important to their success if that autonomy is hobbled by such things as tenure?

In any case, though the wooly wordsmithing of his letter may make for good unionizing, it makes me welcome Mr. Iannuzzi’s current “support” for charters and accountability with about as much cheer and conviction as I would a Trojan horse wheeled up to the school house door.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College