December 18, 2006

Why did some New York charter-school proponents decline a grand compromise?

I'm generally not a fan of conspiracy theories, for a variety of reasons: they tend to be untestable (conspiracy theorists can generally rework their claims within half a second of being shown counterevidence), they tend to ignore alternative hypotheses, they tend to lack crucial evidence of contiguity (i.e., that the pieces of the supposed conspiracy are as close as claimed), and even there is such evidence, conspiracy theorists tend to confuse contiguity with cause. So while any decently-spun conspiracy theory can "explain a whole lot," that doesn't mean that there's evidence to support it. Thus, I'm going to need a lot of evidence before I'm convinced that the FBI killed JFK or George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks.

On the other hand, conspiracies do exist and can even be uncovered in certain contexts. The attempted cover-up of the Watergate break-in's connections with Nixon's 1972 campaign was a conspiracy. I have a conspiracy with my wife to raise our children in certain ways.  Oh, wait: that's an agreement, not a conspiracy. More seriously, my skepticism doesn't forbid my consideration of various claims; it's an historian's skepticism of any simplistic explanation of events.

Thus, we come to yesterday's Edwize entry on the New York Charter School Association, and this morning's follow-up by Ed Muir on the financial ties between the NYCSA and various conservative organizations....

The UFT and AFT is essentially accusing the NYCSA of being anti-union and (crucially) being anti-union because they receive significant support from anti-union corporations and individuals. The roots of this claim come from two directions. The first piece comes from the experiences of charter-school teachers trying to organize in New York and elsewhere, where the charter-school managers engaged in the labor equivalent of trench warfare after the majority of teachers signed collective-bargaining authorization cards, including firing activist teachers. Ed Muir has uncovered some prima facia evidence of financial and organizational contiguity, explaining perhaps why NYCSA brought in union-hostile management consultants to teach charter-school managers how to fight the trench warfare.

The second piece comes from the politics of the charter-school cap in New York state. Not being in the state, I'm reluctant to make too many evaluative comments, but I suspect it's safe to say that there are some charter-school advocates who would like the floodgates opened without any accountability or regulations, and that there are also teachers and some union activists who would like charter schools to disappear. But looking at the controversy from afar, I wondered why the obvious Grand Compromise didn't evolve: lift the cap in return for card-check recognition (where union representation would follow majority approval on collective-bargaining authorization cards--see a back-and-forth by Joe Williams and Edwize) and accountability parallel to that applicable to local public schools. (Card-check recognition would not tie charter schools to a grinding bargaining process, and a Grand Compromise could easily have some type of binding mediation built into recognition.)

In May, there were some semi-private discussions about the United Federation of Teacher's support for raising the cap on charter schools in New York state (see discussions in Eduwonk May 12 and Edwize May 15). UFT made a public commitment to the outlines of a compromise, something that probably earned it some enmity of fellow unionists in the state (and the city), perhaps because, in the words of Andy Rotherham (Eduwonk), "the way to marginalize the genuine union-haters is to come to the table." So UFT did. But as far as I can tell, the NYCSA and others never agreed to the outlines of the compromise. Of course, I'm not privy to those discussions, but it's frustrating to see on the outside. Now that UFT did come "to the table," does that mean that the NYCSA really is a bunch of "genuine union-haters" who are more interested in keeping unions out of charter schools than in lifting the cap?

Let me note that the UFT and AFT are not making an explicit conspiracy theory that says the Walton big bucks are driving New York education politics. I'm skeptical of that claim, simply because New Yorkers are proud of their ability to think independently; it would be sort of like saying New Yorkers would ever vote to elect as U.S. Senator an Illinois native who didn't live in New York before the election.  Oh, wait, ...

On the other hand, the evidence challenges the independence of NYCSA in representing the interests of charter schools in New York. Are prospective charter-school operators in New York aware that NYCSA may have thrown away an opportunity to let them open schools?  Let me also state one very clear way of testing the broader claims being made by UFT and AFT: If NYCSA comes back to the table and can come to an agreement with UFT on the obvious Grand Compromise, that's solid counterevidence against any conspiracy. So what about it?

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Posted in Education policy on December 18, 2006 9:50 AM |