ANALYSIS: Union Criticism of Charter Schools Hits Close to Home in DougCo

August 14, 2013
The head of a key national union recently railed against the expansion of charter schools

The head of a key national union recently railed against the expansion of charter schools

CASTLE ROCK — In a major speech about the future of public education delivered to raucous crowd of union backers in Washington, DC in July, the head of a key national union railed against the expansion of charter schools across the country.

“(P)arents want strong neighborhood public schools as opposed to more charter schools and vouchers,” said Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers union that organized the Chicago teachers strike last summer, while launching equally spirited attacks on the reform-minded Douglas County School Board this year.

Nearly 2,000 miles and a few days removed from Ms. Weingarten’s broadside on charter schools, a familiar nemesis to Weingarten and the teacher’s union — the Douglas County School District — was recognized by a leading school reform group for taking a decidedly different approach to charter schools.

Douglas County Schools, which has authorized more than a dozen charter and magnet schools, serving more than 10,000 students last year, was recognized by the non-partisan Colorado League of Charter Schools as a “Pioneer” of charter schools.

The recognition was part of a celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Colorado’s first charter schools.

“We’re honored to receive this award as it acknowledges Douglas County School District’s commitment to putting what’s best for our students first and our belief in school choice,” said Board of Education member Doug Benevento. “As the only public school district in Colorado to fully embrace charter schools, this recognition truly reemphasizes our belief that parents and families know what is best for their child.”

Former Democratic Governor Roy Romer, who signed Colorado’s Charter Schools Act in 1993 into law before ultimately going on to become Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District for five years, also received recognition from the group.

Though unions fought the passage of charter legislation for years, Romer bucked the partisan tide, signing the measure into law as part of a broader set of reforms focused on improving student achievement.

Charter schools are public schools that receive funding and some directives during a chartering process overseen by the school district, but they are also granted broad flexibility to take alternative approaches to governance, class size, course-requirements and curriculum

Like Romer, Douglas County education reformers have been involved in the charter schools effort for decades, opening Academy Charter School in Castle Rock – one of the first of two such schools to open in the state.  And DougCo, under the guidance of an unapologetically reform-minded school board, doesn’t appear ready to slow down any time soon.

With 12 charter schools already in place, Douglas County school officials have two more slated to open during the 2013-2014 school year.

“Douglas County School District’s flexibility and cooperation was vital to the opening of Academy Charter School and its successors during the first few years of charter school existence in Colorado,” said Nora E. Flood, President of Colorado League of Charter Schools. “DCSD continues to be a leader in charter school authorizing today.”

Douglas County Schools has embraced choice, including that from charter schools, as a strategy to enhance the district’s student performance.

But Weingarten was less enthusiastic about the role of charters and choice in her remarks to the convention of more than 2,000 union officials.  According to the New York Times, Ms. Weingarten “acknowledg(ed) the success of some charter schools while still expressing fear that they siphon talent and money from established school systems.”

Such were the criticisms leveled at the charter legislation signed by Romer 20 years ago, but the “charter schools vs. neighborhood schools” storyline has not materialized in the 20 years since – not in Douglas County, at least.

While embracing a culture of choice and charter schools, neighborhood schools in Douglas County have also achieved exceptional gains in recent years.

A recent analysis from Newsweek placed six of Douglas County’s traditional neighborhood high schools on a list of the nation’s top performing high schools.

The clash between Weingarten’s union and Douglas County school reformers over charter schools, meanwhile, is far from the first.

Ms. Weingarten, whose national union funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in union dues to the campaign of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, traveled to Colorado in late 2012 to ostracize the district after the Douglas County School Board stopped collecting union dues from local teachers that, in part, funded partisan political campaigns, including that of Obama.

Union leaders say that union campaign contributions provide a key voice for teachers in the political process.  But critics of the dues collection process say that those dollars would be better left in the paychecks of teachers, and that the unions have allowed themselves to become little more than partisan bagmen for Democrats.

Whatever the case, Weingarten didn’t take kindly to Douglas County Schools’ move to shut off dues collection.  She made a special trip to Colorado to stand in “solidarity” with her local union affiliate, effectively threatening the school board’s ouster.

The visit drew a sharp rebuke from State Senator Ted Harvey (R-Douglas County).

“This is Colorado, not Chicago, and while you of course are free to speak your mind, our community is not interested in union bullying, strikes, ham-handed petitions or any of the other disingenuous tactics you embraced in Chicago,” Harvey said at the time.  “Douglas County Schools are on the front-edge of school reform, and no amount of intimidation from you is going to change that”

In addition to dues for campaigns and charter schools, Weingarten’s local union affiliate has also been broadly critical of Douglas County’s performance pay for teachers program.

Douglas County also stopped using district dollars to pay the salaries of Weingarten’s local union representatives, an informal funding quid-pro-quo that had been in place between the district and the local union for approximately a decade, until the current school board set it aside.

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