Protecting the Wrong Interests

One of the reasons why charters schools have become so popular and so successful is because they were schools that go away from the typical school board bureaucracy, the typical school board issues, and became places that teachers could go to really teach and try to reach kids who may not necessary be able to maximize their opportunity to succeed elsewhere.

Well, we can’t let those great ideals and the idea of giving kids opportunity to get in the way of the teacher’s union, now can we?

Baltimore’s most successful middle school is laying off staff and shortening its school day to meet demands of a teachers union contract in what is one of the first major disputes over teacher pay between a charter school and a union.

KIPP Ujima Village Academy, based on a model that has forged a successful track record among poor students in more than a dozen states, has been violating a contract requiring teachers to be paid more if they work extra hours, school and union leaders acknowledge.

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After seven years of ignoring the issue, the Baltimore Teachers Union told the charter school earlier this year that it must pay its teachers 33 percent more than other city school teachers because they were working nine hours and 15 minutes a day, as well as every other Saturday. The standard workday for teachers is seven hours and five minutes.

Of course, this is one of the strangest circumstances to see the BTU come down on KIPP seven years after the fact, and after the school became noted for its success. But there are two things that are incredibly annoying about the BTU’s involvement in this case.

The first issue is that virtually all of the teachers at the KIPP school were there of there own accord and liked it that way. They were perfectly comfortable signing onto teaching at the school, knowing what was expected of them, and knowing that they would receive a salary 18 percent above those comparable teachers at regular city schools. I’m not exactly sure why any teacher would be filing complaints (as the BTU suggested) about the pay scale when everybody knew exaclty what they were getting into when they agree to teach there.

The second, less transparent, issue with BTU’s involvement is the obviously negative impact that the increase in pay is going to have on the students of this KIPP school. Because of the increase, the school is seeing not only a reduction in staff, but also a reduction of classroom hours. Students will be in class over six hours a week less in 2009-2010 then they were last year thanks to this boneheaded complaint from the union. That adds up over the course of a 34 week school year to nearly two weeks of reduced instruction. Why is the issue of performance so important in the analysis of the union’s complaint? It’s because of this:

In 2008, 96 percent of the eighth-graders at KIPP passed the Maryland School Assessment in math and 56 percent passed in reading. Overall, the students scored among the top 10 percent of all middle schools in the state.

KIPP schools are drastically overperforming traditional Baltimore City middle schools. If the trend continues, one could reasonably deduce that either curriculum, hours, and methods at other Baltimore City will change, or more students will be shifted over to the charter school model. Either way, this could have a potentially negative impact on the majority of the teachers who work in Baltimore City Public Schools and are represented by the BTU.

I am cynical enough to believe that the Baltimore Teacher’s Union put the self-interests of mediocre teachers ahead of the interests of the students of Baltimore City? Yes I am, and frankly it is the most reasonable of all conclusions.

I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to teachers for the hard work that they do in what, in most cases, is a thankless jobs. But teachers should also call a spade a spade, and challenge their union to do what is necessary to maximize opportunities for all students in their school systems. And finding new and creative ways to screw charter schools that are showing demonstrable success at reaching out to students who may not otherwise succeed is not in the best interests of students, teachers, or taxpayers…


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