A report about the success of the New Orleans charter schools caught my eye the other day. After Katrina and the destruction of many neighborhood classrooms, charter schools emerged with open enrollment to students regardless of their home addresses. That liberty freed children who lived in low income neighborhoods to attend schools with students from homes representing all walks of life. In a way, education became democratized as our public schools were intended to be. The second positive is that since the advent of charter schools, academic scores in the area have risen. (“New Orleans’ charter school success,” by Jonathan Chait, excerpted from NYmag.com, The Week, 9/4/15 pg. 12.) Unfortunately, that has not been the case with charter schools elsewhere. (Click)
Nonetheless, writer Jonathan Chait asserts the gap between schools in New Orleans and others in more affluent areas in the state, “has nearly closed.” (Ibid, pg 12.) All good, of course, except he attributes much of the success to the destruction of teachers’ union that “kept mediocre teachers in classrooms.” (Ibid pg. 12.)
Blaming teachers’ unions for imperfections of public schools is facile and shows an ignorance about the system. Unions don’t keep mediocre teachers in schools, administrators do. No teacher, even tenured, gets a free pass. Every district in the country has a dismissal procedure which, if followed and the inadequacy proved, will lead to a teacher’s dismissal. Unfortunately, administrators chose to avoid confrontation and the obligation to build a case. Too cumbersome, too lengthy, too embarrassing. Instead they transfer the suspect teachers to other schools, handling their problem in the same way the Catholic Church dealt with pedophile priestd.
Unions aren’t a party to these tactics. Their role is to provide due process. To blame unions for a failed educational system is like blaming the judicial system for disorder in society each time an accused pleads, “Not guilty.”
As one who headed a local union, I can testify that teachers need representation. Their honor, their integrity, their jobs can be challenged by a whisper. Administrators aren’t saints or always willing to exercise good judgment. Nor are they free from prejudice. I have defended teachers harassed by horny principals, dogged by students with vendettas about grades, assaulted by parents who refused to believe their sons or daughters weren’t angels, or some who were hated because they were black. And, heaven defend a teacher who spoke against an administrative policy he or she believed was detrimental to students.
I’m sure numerous factors contribute to why schools fail. The least of these are unions. Unions exist to ensure justice. Is that really so hard for Chait and other critics to understand?
(Originally posted 10/23/15)