Friday, May 01, 2009

Union aggression: Charter schools at risk

The New York Times on Monday offered a compelling portrait of Kashi Nelson, who teaches at a Brooklyn charter school targeted for takeover by teachers unions. Nelson first opposed and then embraced and then opposed unionization again, personifying a struggle for the heart and soul of charter schools taking place across the country. Explains the Times:
"Ms. Nelson’s shift from union skeptic to supporter and back again provides a glimpse of the complicated and tense dance between charter schools and unions unfolding across the country. As the number of charter schools in New York City and elsewhere swells, unions have become increasingly aggressive in trying to organize their teachers.

These two major forces in education politics, having long faced off in ideological opposition, have begun in some places to enter tentative and cautious partnerships, and in others to engage in fierce combat. New York City’s teachers’ union now runs two charter schools in Brooklyn and workers have organized at many more, including more than a dozen across New York State.

Some of the most adamant supporters of charter schools say that the teachers’ union is simply trying to stymie their growth by increasing the regulations on their operation; union leaders, on the other hand, say they are just trying to ensure that teachers are given fair pay and clear guidelines for how and why they could be dismissed."

Having largely lost the battle to stop the schools, unions have adopted a new strategy -- of destroying them from within by infiltrating and organizing their staffs. And with legislation pending before Congress that would make unionizing the workplace as simple as gathering enough signatures -- the so-called card check bill -- this assault on the independence of charter schools is only likely to spread and escalate.

Freedom from union influence is one of the distinguishing characteristics of charter schools; indeed, it's one of the secrets to their success. It's what leaves the teachers free to teach, without constant reference to what's "in the contract." It's what leaves school administrators free to manage, without butting heads with obstructionists within. Absent is the adversarial relationship between "management" and "workers" that unions feed upon. These schools put the interest of students first and teachers second. And that's why unions want to obliterate that distinction.

Teachers have a choice of working at a charter school or a conventional public school. They're intelligent enough to understand the trade-offs involved. Many choose the former over the latter because of the apathy and antipathy unions frequently bring to the workplace. Thus, the idea that unions are coming to the rescue of beleaguered charter school teachers is ridiculous.

Many of these teachers have fled to charters to escape the unhealthy and unproductive influence of unions, as Nelson was when she took the job in Brooklyn. But the unions refuse to let charter schools and charter school teachers (not to mention charter school students and parents) go their own way, insisting that uniformity, conformity, lethargy and mediocrity permeate public education in America, without exception.

If allowed to go unchecked, the union takeover of charters schools threatens to undermine and eventually destroy one of the few real innovations American public education has enjoyed in recent times.

But a more practical, bottom-line motivation also lurks behind the takeovers. The popularity of charters has the tide turning decisively against unions. It represents a steady drain on union membership, union dues and union power -- which is all most unions care about anyway. Unless they find a way to co-opt charters, not only will unions experience a continuing decline in membership and money, but America will before long have two public school systems existing side my side.

One system, free from union influence, will be succeeding, while the other, anchored down by union dominance, will be failing. And that will be the most glaring evidence yet of the cancerous influence these organizations have had on American public education.


British regional council launches knife detectors in schools

Waltham Forest Council has become the first in the country to introduce a borough-wide weapons screening programme in schools, with knife arches in every secondary school. Council bosses said that it would be foolish to ignore the problem of knife crime as the scheme was launched at Lammas School and Sports College in Leyton, east London. Teachers, students, police and councillors all welcomed the initiative and denied that the presence of the arches in schools would criminalise young people.

Chris Robbins, council member for children and young people, said: "There's no doubt that there is an issue of knife and weapon crime in London and it would be foolish to ignore that." He said the scheme, the first in England and Wales, was in response to requests from youngsters who said they wanted to feel safe in schools. He added that the initiative would tackle the serious crime as part of a larger educational programme which involved the police talking to students in schools.

Lammas School headteacher Shona Ramsay said the programme was a good idea. "It's a preventative measure to deter our young people from carrying knives," she said. "We don't have a problem here and I want to keep it that way. We're really pressing home the message that schools are safe."

From today, the arches will be used about once a term [What good is that? Why not once a day?] in each of the borough's 22 secondary schools. Inspector Mike Hamer, head of the borough's safer schools programme, said around 12,000 pupils had been screened so far and no weapons had been found. He said: "We think that's a success. What it means is that there has been no knives in schools and the students should feel safe."

He said there had been an "overwhelmingly positive" response and denied that the arches would criminalise all young people. He added that the arches were a "response to what young people want" and helped reduce the fear of crime in schools.

Marco Santo, 12, said he was "a bit nervous before walking through the arches" but that it "wasn't that bad". Mischa Haynes, also 12, said: "It makes you feel safe in school and it's a place where you should feel safe."

The Government launched its Tackling Knives Action Programme last summer which targeted 10 knife-crime hotspots with searches, knife arches and increases in police patrols. At the time, Frances Lawrence, widow of headteacher Philip Lawrence who was stabbed outside St George's School in Maida Vale, north London, in 1995, called for more action to prevent stabbings but said knife arches amounted to "criminalisation of all young people".


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