The American Federation of Teachers strongly supports charter schools that embody the core values of public education and a democratic society: equal access for all students, especially students with special needs and English language learners; high academic standards; accountability to parents and the public; a commitment to helping all public schools improve; and a commitment to the employees' right to freely choose union representation.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are granted autonomy from some state and local regulations in exchange for meeting the terms of each school's charter. State laws, which vary widely, govern who can authorize charters, who can apply for them, and the total number allowed. Today, there are more than 4,500 charter schools across 40 states and the District of Columbia, enrolling more than 1 million children.
Charter Schools Can Empower Teachers
In a landmark address in 1988, former AFT president Albert Shanker became one of the first education leaders to champion the concept of charter schools. Shanker envisioned teacher-led laboratories of reform that would experiment with new instructional practices. These practices would then be subjected to rigorous evaluation and, if successful, would serve as models for other public schools.
Shanker also saw charter schools as a way to empower teachers, free them from overly bureaucratic regulations, and strengthen their voice in school and curriculum decision-making. In his view, unions were essential to charter schools, because unions help create the kind of secure work environment that encourages innovation and risk-taking.
The AFT and Charter Schools Today
The AFT believes strongly in Shanker's vision and the vital connection between charter schools and unions. In fact, the AFT represents charter school teachers and support staff in a dozen states. Our largest affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, operates two charter schools. And in fall 2008, the UFT partnered with innovative charter school operator Green Dot to open a high school in the Bronx. The Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers have joined with other partners to open a new charter high school in Chicago's West Garfield Park neighborhood.
Many teachers and staff in unionized charter schools report high levels of job satisfaction, noting that they benefit from the protections and rights of a union, and the freedom and flexibility of a charter.
Charter Schools: Realizing the Promise
Charter schools hold promise as engines of innovation and reform, but just as there are good and bad public schools, there are good and bad charter schools. Unfortunately, some charter school operators stifle input, exploit their staff, and put profit ahead of students' needs. Teachers working in poorly managed charter schools are the first to acknowledge this reality.
The AFT believes that responsible charter school management must be both transparent and accountable. Charter schools should:
- Be tuition-free, not-for-profit, and open and accessible to all students on an equal basis. Charter schools shouldn't use selective admissions to "cherry pick" top performers. And, just like other public schools, they should serve special needs students and English language learners.
- Operate transparently by fully disclosing their finances, curriculum, student demographics and academic outcomes to parents and the public. Charter schools, like other public schools, also should be subject to ongoing public input and oversight.
- Meet or exceed the same academic standards and assessment requirements that apply to other public schools.
- Hire well-qualified teachers . Teachers should be either certified or on a pathway to certification.
- Work cooperatively with local school districts. One of the goals of charter schools is to try out new instructional practices so that the lessons learned can be used to improve all public schools. This sharing of ideas should be a two-way street, with innovations coming from regular public schools too.
- Permit their employees to freely form unions. A strong teacher voice supported by a union is essential to achieving fairness in the workplace and improving academic outcomes. Charter school teachers and staff should be able to choose union representation in a timely and straightforward process.
The Bottom Line: What Happens in the Classroom Matters Most
Frontline educators know that there's no silver bullet for improved student learning. Simply changing a school's governance structure—for example, from regular public to charter, or from charter to regular public—does not magically lead to better results. Regardless of the type of school (regular public, charter or private), what happens in the school and in the classroom matters most.
Research shows that all schools have the best chance to succeed when they work collaboratively with all stakeholders; foster safe and orderly environments conducive to learning; have the ability for individualized instruction, which is possible with small class sizes; value quality teaching and great teachers; offer ample and effective professional development; feature a challenging, content-rich curriculum; use proven, research-based instructional practices; and have parental engagement. Schools also succeed when teachers and staff have a strong voice in school operations. For decades, the AFT has helped educators expand their influence as school leaders and decision-makers. That commitment extends to charter school teachers and staff, who deserve the same rights and responsibilities. The AFT established the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff in order to better serve and support our members in charter schools. This national network allows AFT-affiliated charter school educators to share best practices and professional resources, and speak out on public policy issues that affect charter school teachers' jobs.