The Best Hope for Teacher Unions Is... Reform

10/22/2015 11:29 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2016

America's teachers unions probably will not put reform leaders like Newark's Chris Cerf, Philadelphia's William Hite, D.C's Kaya Henderson, or Denver's Tom Boasberg at the top of their Christmas card mailing list. But they should, because no one is working harder to improve and preserve traditional, unionized, district-run schools.

Yes, these and other reform superintendents support creating new, high-quality schools, including public charters, and giving all parents the power to choose the right schools for their children. But they and their leadership teams are most deeply committed to investing in and strengthening the existing district-run schools. No one wants these schools to work for kids more than these district leaders.

Their great and seemingly unforgivable sin in the eyes of the unions, however, is that they have the audacity to believe that the traditional public school is not the only model that works for kids. They understand that it's important to give families another model--one that has more flexibility and autonomy.

Charter opponents like to label education leaders who are empowering families' right to choose as "privatizers." In their dictionary, public means "union-controlled" and any variation is the enemy.

It doesn't matter how well the kids are doing at your school. It doesn't matter how many parents are in line to get their kids into charter schools. For charter opponents, you're either with us or you're against us. It's strictly either/or.

But leaders like Henderson, Hite, Cerf, Boasberg and dozens more in districts across the country where charters are taking root, are more open-minded. They are pushing for both strong district-run schools and high-quality charters. Believing in the latter in no way diminishes their commitment to the former. They should be heralded for the "both/and" approach, not vilified.

And if unions aren't swayed on the grounds that "both/and" is good public policy, they should at least listen to parents. This year, nearly three million students are attending nearly 7000 public charter schools in 43 states and Washington D.C. Demand for these schools is growing, with an estimated one million kids on waiting lists for the coveted seats.

Charter critics claim that charters pull resources and higher achieving students away from traditional public schools, but, in a poll conducted by Education Post, 65 percent of parents rejected this argument. Instead, they agreed that public charters offer high quality options to parents who have been traditionally denied the power of school choice.

Teacher unions, who need unionized teachers and dues in order to exist, are fighting desperately to convince parents to stay with the traditional, district-run schools. But rather than appealing to parents on the strength of the education that traditional schools offer, their strategy primarily focuses on limiting funding for charters, capping their growth or organizing their teachers to join a union.

At the same time, teacher unions have mobilized teacher bloggers, academics, pseudo-journalists and various non-profit organizations to ignore or smear the great work of high-performing charters. They rail against the small percentage that aren't serving kids well and that reform leaders agree should be, well, reformed.

So how is the union strategy working out? Today, 43 states and D.C. allow charters but all of them fund charters at a lower per-pupil rate and 22 cap their growth. About 7 percent of charters are unionized. The Washington state courts also recently ruled its handful of charter schools unconstitutional but the schools are still open and the case is now on appeal.

Meanwhile, the anti-reform strategy is undermining public confidence in public education as millions of public school parents are increasingly opting out of the traditional public school system. In addition to the three million children in public charters, about two million students are home-schooled and about five million attend private schools. That last number will likely rise as more states offer vouchers or tax-incentives for private school parents.

The plain fact of the matter is that charters are here to stay and poised to grow. The fight should be to hold them accountable to high standards of quality and access, not to undermine their promise and popularity as a powerful option for families.

The larger fight should be to improve district-run schools in urban communities. This fight consumes most of the time, energy, and resources of even the hardest-charging reform superintendents for the obvious reason that traditional schools serve most of their kids. And, when reforms get results as they have in D.C. and Denver, enrollment should eventually rise.

Reform leaders overseeing traditional public schools need more partners in the fight. They are not the union's enemy. They are the traditional public school system's--and the union's--best hope.

Peter Cunningham is Executive Director of Education Post, a non-partisan communications organization dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education from preschool to high school graduation. He is a former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. He served in the Obama administration.