Do the Teachers Unions Want to Crush Us or Represent Us? Which Is It?

A better approach for the L.A. teachers union would be to stop denying teachers their choice and to work collaboratively with those who choose charters.
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Less than a mile away from where President Obama spoke at a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer on Monday night stands a new $139 million middle school that bears his name -- The Barack Obama Global Leadership Academy -- a lofty school name in a community grappling with a dropout rate greater than 50 percent and where fewer than 10 percent of high school freshmen go on to college.

But politics continue to impede what could have been a beautiful symbol of change in L.A. when Los Angeles Unified recently cowered under pressure from union leadership rather than allow successful charter schools access to this facility and other district campuses. It was an egregious display of adult interests trumping community need when the school board that ushered in this policy flipped, effectively pushing it out the same door through which decades of promising reform efforts at LAUSD had been escorted.

As the teachers union in Los Angeles desperately tries to remain relevant, it has resorted to the predictable -- ramping up its efforts to thwart real reform as charters gain influence -- to the downright puzzling.

At the very same time teachers unions are doing everything in their power to prevent charters from opening up -- the head of UTLA was quoted in a local paper saying, "We're never happy when a charter school opens up" -- they are aggressively trying to organize charter school teachers.

So which is it? Do the local teachers unions want to crush charters or do they want to represent charter teachers?

Despite a five-year effort by UTLA to organize local charter schools, there has been very little success. Quite simply, the teachers aren't buying it. Why not? If you truly want to work with our teachers, you must open your minds to working in collaboration with charters and doing the things it takes that make them successful. You have to empower teachers and get away from the one-size-fits-all educational model that stifles them in the classroom. You have to be open to exploring ideas like merit pay, redefining tenure, giving teachers ownership in the schools and the flexibility to innovate in the classrooms.

The teachers union is fighting charters at the local level through school districts, at the legislative level and through the legal system, which has made charter school teachers -who are public school teachers -- skeptical, if not cynical, about wanting to be organized by a union that is relentlessly working to bury charters.

A better approach for the teachers union would be to stop denying them their choice and to work collaboratively with teachers who choose charters. Then, these teachers may be more receptive to having conversations about collective bargaining.

The reality is that teachers are flocking to charters because they want to teach in an environment where they have the flexibility to innovate. More than 1,500 teachers have applied for 37 teaching spots at ICEF Public Schools' 15 high-performing charter schools this year alone. We will continue to open more schools to not only alleviate our hefty waiting lists, but also to create an environment that allows teachers to best serve our students.

Also, more and more traditional public school teachers are leading the conversion of their schools to charter. Los Angeles' Birmingham High and Samuel Gompers in San Diego are among the latest in a long line of conversions that include Fenton, Vaughn, Pacoima and Montague.

The president, along with more than 60,000 parents in Los Angeles, recognizes that charter schools are where many of the innovations in public education are happening today, offering families throughout this country high-quality options. He knows that charters are offering parents throughout the country high-quality options. Both he and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have been pushing for serious and far reaching reforms - serious enough to earn the enmity of the teachers unions. The NEA and AFT, the two largest teachers unions in America, have decried the president's reform efforts. A faction within the unions has even planned a march on Washington to demand Duncan's resignation. Others affiliated have hung the president's image in effigy, conjuring up unimaginable, horrific images of times past.

President Obama must be making progress if he has so incensed the status quo, and if we have learned anything from the health care debate, it is that this president is ready to fight the good fight.

School districts should look at high-performing charters as their partners in education, offering space for these public schools to expand and political support for them to grow. Parents are demanding charters because it is the only real path their children have to higher education. ICEF is sending 100 percent of our graduates to college. Even more impressive is that three years after graduating from high school, an astounding 91 percent of ICEF graduates are still in college. No student should have less than this opportunity for success, and school district leaders and unions need to demonstrate true leadership and encourage successful reform models like ICEF's to grow and prosper.

So while it is ironic that the Barack Obama Global Leadership Academy has become a symbol of politics prevailing over true reform, let us heed the lessons this cautionary tale provides. In order for the Obama Academy to live up to its ambitious name and adequately prepare students to compete in a global economy; LAUSD must replicate the spirit of the reforms the president is trying to initiate. That will only come by demonstrating courage when interacting with union leadership that talks reform but thwarts it at every step.

Mike Piscal is the founder and CEO of ICEF Public Schools, a network of 15 high-performing charter schools based in South Los Angeles.

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