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Unions Lack a Long-Term Winning Strategy

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New York City teachers union boss Michael Mulgrew is feeling good about his "war with reformers." He should; Mulgrew and other anti-reformers are on winning streaks.

Problem is, Mulgrew and others are pursing strategies that in the long run will prove to be losers.
Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, this week bragged to his 3,400-member Delegate Assembly that the recent contract negotiated with New York's progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio was the union's best shot at winning the war with reformers.

The press was barred from the event, but a Chalkbeat reporter got a recording which also captured Mulgrew bragging that his position on new teacher evaluations had been designed to "gum up the works" -- a strategy he said had unfolded perfectly.

Referring to the reformers, Chalkbeat recorded him saying, "Their ideas will absolutely destroy--forget about public education--they will destroy education in the country." At the top of the list of those dangerous reforms are charter schools. Their danger? Most hire non-union teachers.
Mulgrew's ace in the hole, of course, is de Blasio, who offered Mulgrew a contract that, according to early press conferences allowed schools to toss out work rules that had been holding them back and imitate charters with innovative practices. Only later was the fine print revealed: Those school transformations can be easily blocked by a minority of teachers at a school. Another win for Mulgrew.

New York City isn't the only place where rigorous "pushbacks" against education reforms are breaking out. The force against reform is considerable -- unions, superintendents and legislators all keenly interested in protecting their franchises. The formula they face is both real and simple: Lose students to charters, lose money.

In Illinois, legislators are still considering multiple anti-charter measures, including a lethal one that would eliminate a way for startup charters to appeal if they have been turned down by local school boards. Why lethal? How many school districts go out looking for competition? Does Burger King invite McDonald's to move in next door?

In Los Angeles the school board voted to shut down two very high performing Aspire charter schools for committing the sin of using special education providers not preferred by the union. (Eventually, the board was overruled.) In Chicago, union President Karen Lewis is also feeling like she's on a roll. Lewis has decided she has the clout to campaign against Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. The mayor's sin? He's a centrist Democratic school reformer, much like his former boss, President Obama.

In San Jose, the Morgan Hill school district triumphantly fended off bids by two separate charter networks to start up in their district. The price of that Morgan Hill victory was denying parents there the option of attending a Navigator charter school, which in nearby Gilroy runs what may be the highest performing elementary school in the state that serves low-income Latino children. Not much of a victory.

The weakness of the Morgan Hill strategy is identical to the weakness of Mulgrew's strategy. Short term, they get a win. But denying entry for better schools is no long-term strategy. Creating those better schools is the winning long-term strategy.

To prevail in the long term, Morgan Hill has to come up with a way to match Navigator's success, because parents there have a right to choose. Same in New York City. Until Mulgrew can create schools that match the success rate of charters already operating there -- KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools and many others -- he will lose, simply because in the long term parents will choose what is best for their children.

Already, there are 1 million students nationwide on charter school wait lists. Shouldn't Mulgrew take that as a sign that he needs a strategy other than devising ways to make that wait list even bigger?

School superintendents and union leaders may think they have discovered ways to stave off outsiders willing to build better schools, but the forces arrayed against them are also powerful. On Friday the House passed charter school legislation designed to encourage the best charter networks to grow even faster.

Parents want the option of sending their children to better schools, and millions of parents already have the power to choose those schools. Do the anti-reformers really expect parents to give that up?

Mulgrew should enjoy his short-term win. It won't last. Parents are not going to give up their choice options.

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Richard Whitmire is author of On the Rocketship: How High Performing Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope.

A version of this op-ed ran in the New York Daily News.