A Union Charter Flunks Out

Editorial by the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal

03/09/15

Randi Weingarten’s model school closes after years of failure

"Our schools will show real, quantifiable student achievement and with those results finally dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success.” So declared teachers union chief Randi Weingarten in 2005 upon launching the United Federation of Teachers charter school in Brooklyn, New York.

The UFT quietly let slip last week that this showcase K-8 charter school is closing after a legacy of failure. Ms. Weingarten’s experiment in education of the union, by the union and for the union is a case study in the problems with the status quo of union dominance over American public education.

In 2005 the UFT Charter School opened with a $1 million gift from the Broad Foundation and plans to reduce class sizes, increase collaboration among teachers with monthly “townhall meetings” and daily “community gatherings,” and replace principals with less adversarial “school leaders.” Instructional coaches were supposed to support teachers but not evaluate their performance. 

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Parent Anthony Sanchez on why he and 13,000 other New Yorkers rallied for school choice in Albany Wednesday. Photo credit: Associated Press.

All of this implemented the long-time union agenda for school reform and was meant to show that there was no great secret to such New York charter successes as KIPP Academy and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy. You almost had to admire the union nerve because it showed their leaders believed their own advertising.

The school’s board of trustees consisted of union leaders, school staff and “community representatives” such as Acorn CEO Bertha Lewis. The union provided funds to cover deficits in addition to the Broad Foundation grant, which Ms. Weingarten promised would ensure that union dues wouldn’t pay for operating costs. Notably, the school shared space at no cost with a district public school. Recall that last year New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to ban such co-locations and charge rent to non-union charters that have private donors. 

From the start the UFT charter suffered from high staff turnover, operational chaos and budget deficits. Student test scores lagged neighboring district and other charter schools. The school repeatedly failed to meet the performance benchmarks established by its charter authorizer, the State University of New York (SUNY). 

In 2013 SUNY reported mixed results at the elementary school and that the middle school met only one of 15 Accountability Plan measures in math and none in English. Student test scores appeared to decline the longer students were enrolled. Half of fifth graders opted not to continue. Declining enrollment in the middle school exacerbated the school’s fiscal duress, which SUNY attributed to poor bookkeeping. The union bailed out the school with interest-free bridge loans.

SUNY also highlighted “chronic shortages of textbooks and unrepaired equipment,” missing standardized test booklets that were not returned to the publisher for scoring, violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and “limited instructional coaching.” SUNY reviewers saw students listening to music and chatting with friends. In one geography lesson, “rather than making use of technological resources to present the critical economic and political importance of the Nile, the teacher had students color in blank maps of the river.”

SUNY nonetheless granted the union a two-year conditional renewal with orders to shape up. The school then placed students on a heavy testing regimen—despite the union’s opposition to “high-stakes” testing everywhere else—yet teachers weren’t graded on student performance. The union even rejected President Obama ’s Race to the Top funds because it required that teacher evaluations be linked to student performance.

The school’s results speak for themselves: In 2014, 11% of students were rated proficient in English and 18% in math compared to 28% and 36% in schools with similar demographics, and 59% and 92% at the Harlem Success Academy, which enrolls more kids with disabilities. The union charter performed worse than 96% of its peers on subjective standards like “instructional core” and “systems for improvement” measured from parents, teacher and student surveys. On almost all counts the district middle school next door did better. 

Threatened with non-renewal this year, the union decided to close the school. New York UFT chief Michael Mulgrew blames “SUNY’s narrow focus on state tests,” but only 12 of the 147 charters that SUNY authorizes have not been renewed. Ms. Weingarten washed her hands of the experiment last year, saying through a spokesperson that she “hadn’t been involved in a long time.” 

The union says it “will work with the Department of Education to ensure appropriate placements for all students affected.” These kids deserve automatic admission to the city’s top charter schools, not another spin in the union wheel. The lesson for everyone else is that the teachers union’s education model of rich funding without accountability fails students even under the ideal operating conditions of its own design.

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