Teachers unions: Must they be preserved?

John E. Coons
teachers unions

Public teachers unions should swallow hard and concede the need for parental sovereignty, “even” for the poor.

There is nothing to prevent teachers unions starting their own charter schools. Indeed, here and there, a few have done so. Yet most union leaders constantly blast this option as “private” and “wasteful” and “un-American” and “segregationist” and . . . (fill in the blank).

At least one of these intended insults seems valid, but an unwitting compliment; most charters are essentially a private undertaking. The degree of their insularity from the “public” system varies depending on state law and the terms of their individual charters, but, after all, any separation of a school from the system in order to do it Joe Smith’s own way will make it more private than P.S. 666. That is the very point of the charter option.

Charters are competitive. Without student applications, there comes no money – and no school; with enough parent customers, it will flourish. Together, parent and school make private enterprise work as it is supposed to. The happy parent tells her neighbor, who tells her neighbor, and so on. Over time, a successful school may even become a collection of such schools strategically located; already, we witness this process in certain large cities.

Is this bad? If the families come to a school by free choice, I can’t think so. It is precisely what middle-class parents do by moving to the suburbs. In theory, we could worry about a private (instead of public) monopoly, but so far, the supply of charters, diverse in type, shows no end, and one good reason is plain. Education is not some unique rare metal. It is a product highly personal and diverse in style and designed (if allowed) to serve a range of parental tastes and their child’s specific needs. The school, of course, must meet some minimum and truly public standard. From there, the only question is whether it can satisfy enough parents to survive.

There are, thus, questions of design and practice. Should a school be free to refuse enrollment to the unpromising child who parents decide could most benefit from its style? And, on the other hand, must a school which is “successful” at academics arrange its own demise by becoming wholly unselective?

Since 1970, in books and essays, Stephen Sugarman and I have together addressed this issue of balance, proposing a variety of approaches to such regulation in very specific model statutes. Each has represented a different form of compromise by which the school could preserve its identity while accepting a number of students who, but for its charter form, would have been denied admission.

Schools that retain total control of admissions would not become charters, but same sex schools would be welcome. Charter schools, as the union complains, are essentially private, and the law should keep them so. One day the Supreme Court may recognize this, making the charter a very plausible constitutional option for the churches of the inner city.

There would, of course, be problems of adaption for such faith-based schools and for the state. Our models have detailed various compromises, for example, recognizing the schools’ duty, at least to some extent, to disregard parental belief when regulating admissions as, for example, by determining a third or half of invitations by lottery among all applicants still unchosen.

The dissenter should, however, if the school prefers, take and pass courses in the creed along with the believer, so long as neither belief nor sectarian behavior is required of the child, and he or she is treated with full respect.

Public teachers unions should swallow hard and concede the need for parental sovereignty, “even” for the poor. As presently established, these organizations are underequipped to serve choiceless low-income families. Instead, they serve the system by a form of bondage.

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1 comment

Matthew Ladner
Matthew Ladner February 19, 2019 - 10:07 am

Jack- Can you share a link or two to some of the writings referenced? I’m interested to read more. Under current law, district magnet schools can and do practice selective admissions, while charters must hold random admission lotteries. Teacher union tears regarding charter school “segregation” and “creaming” appear to be of the crocodile variety imo as current practices leave them in the position of saying “creaming is terrible unless it is done by district schools with unionized teachers in which case it is fine.”

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