A big reason charter schools are so successful is that they can work outside of the typical school bureaucracy. That allows them the freedom and flexibility to create innovative programs tailored to the needs of their particular students.
Such latitude, however, is exactly what scares the hell out of those opposed to charter schools. And where fear and political clout meet, there is legislation. That's what happened in California this spring when the state's burgeoning charter school movement faced a potentially lethal challenge: a bill that would have forced charter schools to join the teachers union and operate under the existing contracts in their districts. Proponents of the law, including the state's biggest education union, the California Teachers Association, presented it as a benign measure that would simply extend to charter school teachers the same rights enjoyed by conventional public school teachers.
Charter school advocates responded immediately, pointing out that the defining characteristic of charter schools is precisely that they are exempt from the usual requirements. Besides, they added, many charter school teachers already operate under a union contract. Even Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who as governor of California supported unions, vowed to fight the bill to the bitter end. The message got through to lawmakers in Sacramento, and by June the legislation's teeth had been pulled. The CTA and charter school proponents made a compromise that put into words what was already in practice: Charter teachers can organize into unions if they want to, but they don't have to.
The fight was short but important, says Sue Bragato, executive director of the California Network of Education Charters. If it had passed, "it would have closed schools down," she says. California approved charter schools in 1992 and last year increased the number of charters allowable to 250 in 1999. Some of these will be brand new schools, but many will be traditional public schools that convert to charter status. Bragato believes that the CTA is running scared as charter schools become less of an experiment and more of an established alternative to public schools. After all, she points out, if more schools open or convert with no official union requirement, the CTA stands to lose a lot of money.
That's one reason this latest anti-charter skirmish is unlikely to be the last. Indeed, even as they vanquished union-sponsored legislation, charter school advocates were fighting against an attempt to stop funding for charter schools that are not based in classrooms, such as home schools.