A Looming Charter School Re-Union?

Will charter schools eventually become as thoroughly unionized as traditional public schools? Not likely, say some prominent parental-choice advocates. Charter School Leadership Council President Nelson Smith was recently quoted as saying, "It’s still comparatively rare for charter schools to be unionized," adding, "Teachers in charter schools tend to want to have freedom and flexibility, and the freedom to innovate is one of the reasons they’re in a charter school."

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Even if that’s true today, how long can it remain so if charter schools continue their current growth? At some point, the supply of entrepreneurial, risk-taking teachers will be exhausted. Their numbers can’t be all that large to begin with, given that teachers organizations have consistently sought guaranteed job security, extensive contractual controls on their duties and higher barriers to entry for would-be teachers. In fact, if a state ever charterized its entire public school system, there is no reason to believe that the majority of teachers would suddenly abandon their preference for security over flexibility and vote to end collective bargaining.

Paul Kersey, a former labor policy research associate at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, has attributed the low current level of charter unionization, at least in part, to teachers having "good relations with (their) employers, which allows them to operate without a union and feel comfortable doing so." But it is not obvious that the climate of employee-management relations dictates, or is even strongly correlated with, unionization level.

There has been a relentless decrease in private-sector union membership over the past half-century (from 39 percent to 8.5 percent of the nongovernment workforce) and a steady rise in public education unionization (from 837,000 members in 1961 to roughly 4 million today). These trends seem entirely unrelated to the conviviality of labor relations. In fact, teacher unionization expert and lifetime NEA member Myron Lieberman argues in a forthcoming book that the states in which union bargaining rights and membership grew most quickly were often those in which teachers were already well-compensated and on good terms with management.

A much better explanation for the divergent patterns of union membership between the public and private sectors is that unionization flourishes where it is effective and retreats where it is not. In the private sector, unionization is largely self-regulating. Workers who make unsustainable demands on their employers risk driving themselves out of work, since businesses with excessive labor costs must charge above-market rates for their goods and drive cost-conscious customers into the arms of thriftier competitors. The returns on collective bargaining are thus tightly constrained under competitive markets.

But traditional and charter public schools are paid for by government agencies that have no competitors. If the unions convince legislators and bureaucrats to increase public school teachers’ salaries out of all proportion to the going market rates, taxpayers have few options. They can move out of the area or hope to elect different representatives, both of which are difficult and carry no guarantee of success. Alternatively, they can either pay the system’s increasingly exorbitant costs or be incarcerated — an arrangement highly conducive to the satisfaction of union demands, as is evidenced by the more than 50 percent salary premium that public school teachers enjoy over their private school colleagues.

So the question is, Do charter schools most closely resemble the consumer-funded private sector, in which unionization is vanishing because its benefits for most workers are minimal, or are they more like the taxpayer-funded public sector, in which unions are thriving because they can win lavishly above-market concessions? The answer tells us whether charter schools will remain relatively unfettered and dynamic — or become calcified by union contracts like those of their conventional public school counterparts.

Better start planning for that charter school re-union.


Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.