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Charter schools were originally conceived as innovative public schools, free from the bureaucracy of school districts and designed to nurture new effective educational models. In fact, the late UFT and AFT president Al Shanker was an early proponent of charters. He envisioned these schools as laboratories in which teachers and students together would experiment with best practices in pedagogy. The lessons they learned, Shanker hoped, would be brought back to the district schools, enriching the education of all students.
Today, our union stands by Shanker’s original conception of charter schools. Unfortunately, there are many in the charter school movement who do not. Corporate elements like the New York City Charter School Center and the New York Charter Schools Association, funded by Wal-Mart’s Walton Foundation and various hedge funds, have captured a significant portion of the charter school movement and are using it to promote their ideological goals: privatizing public education and breaking the power of teacher unions. The educational needs of children have been subsumed to these goals, to the detriment of students in both charter and district schools.
The UFT continues to support the innovation and promise of charter schools and has worked with progressive charter advocates such as University Prep, with whom we forged a collaborative relationship that has resulted in a highly successful charter school in the Bronx. We also run two charter schools of our own, and represent the faculty and staff at over 20 other charters in New York City. We adamantly reject the idea that anti-unionism has any place in real education reform. It is not anti-charter to be pro-union!
On the contrary, we believe that schools work best when educators are respected and when they are included in program and policy planning. Collaboration and communication are most successfully achieved when educators are organized and have the collective power of a union. The UFT supports the organizing efforts of New York City’s charter educators through the UFT Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (UFT ACTS). More information on the union’s organizing efforts is available in the Get Involved section.
Our ultimate goal is to help school and community leaders work with educators to build better schools and to help all our students, in both district and charter schools, meet their full potential. We want the advantages offered by the best charter schools made available to all schools and students. And we want the advantages of district schools shared with charters.
That is why the UFT has opposed funding freezes on charter schools and why we have called for eliminating the two-year lag in charter schools’ funding formula and proposed that charter schools whose educators participate in the Teachers’ Retirement System should be allowed to take that cost off their books and have the local school district assume it.
But while there is much that district and charter schools can learn from each other, there is in the end no replacement for meaningfully public district schools that accept all students who come to them. Many charters are admirably educating their students – but those students account for only a tiny fraction of New York City’s student population. We need to lift all boats, not just a few; we need to focus on making sure all children are getting the programs, services and support they need. The opportunity for a great public education should come not by chance or lottery, not even by choice, but by right.
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