unions in charters

When charter schools unionize, students learn more, study finds

When charter school teachers push to unionize, charter leaders often fight back.

That’s happened in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Unionizing, they argue, would limit the schools’ ability to innovate, ultimately hurting kids.

But a new study of California schools finds that, far from harming student achievement, unionization of charter schools actually boosts test scores.

“In contrast to the predominant public opinion about school unionizations, we find that unionization has a positive … impact on student math performance,” write researchers Jordan Matsudaira of Cornell and Richard Patterson of the U.S. Military Academy.

The analysis is hardly the last word on the question, but it highlights the limited evidence for the idea that not having unionized teachers helps charter schools succeed — even though that is a major aspect of the charter-school movement, as most charters are not unionized.

“Contrary to the anti-worker and anti-union ideologues, the teacher unions in charter schools don’t impede teaching and learning or hurt kids,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in more than 240 charter schools. “And the findings — that schools with teachers who have an independent voice through its unions have a positive effects on student performance — are consistent with common sense and other studies.”

The study, just published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, finds that about a quarter of all charters in California — 277 of 1,127 — were unionized as of 2013. Together, they taught nearly a third of the state’s students in charter schools.

Forty-four of those schools unionized between 2003 and 2013. To understand the effects of that change, the researchers compared trends in test scores of schools after they unionized to similar schools that didn’t unionize during that time.

The researchers find that unionization increased students’ annual math test scores, and those gains persisted for at least three years. The students who started at the lowest achievement levels seemed to benefit the most.

Those gains were fairly substantial: In math, they were about three times the size of the total advantage conferred by urban charter schools nationwide, according to research frequently cited by charter school advocates.

The estimated impact on English scores was positive, but small and not statistically significant.

The paper was not able to explain why unionization seemed to improve student learning, though the authors say it could relate to improved teacher morale or better relationships between teachers and school leadership. Oddly, unionization seemed to lead to a decline in teachers’ years of experience; it did not have any effect on class size.

The study comes with some significant caveats. Although the researchers make extensive efforts to make apples-to-apples comparisons among schools, it’s difficult to be sure that unionization is what caused the test-score gains. If schools that were already more likely to improve were also more likely to unionize, that could explain the results.

David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate at the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, said the study was well done but noted its inability to explain the results.

Griffith, who released an analysis last week showing that unionized charter schools have relatively high rates of teacher absenteeism, also pointed out that many charters without unions are successful.

“Even if this study is true for these particular schools, we have examples of really high-performing non-unionized charter schools,” he said. “It’s difficult to leap from this study to say that [for example] KIPP, which gets these fantastic results, should unionize.”

Previous research has shown middling performance for one of the most high-profile unionized charters in the state, Green Dot, while other non-unionized schools, like the Alliance charter network in Los Angeles, posted better scores.

In contrast to the latest research, a previous study of California’s charter schools found that unionization had no significant effect on test scores.

Since the findings are focused on just a fraction of California’s unionized charter schools, they might not apply to other charter schools in the state or country — or say anything about the effects of unions in traditional public schools.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

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