Black Parents vs. the Teachers’ Union


In Harlem—as elsewhere in this city, state, and nation—there is a sharply rising struggle between teachers’ unions and black parents.

That dispute is over parental choice of schools, especially in regards to publicly financed charter schools which can, and usually do, refuse to recognize teachers’ unions. Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone is nationally known for making charter schools a working part of the community, recently sent out a rallying cry to black parents everywhere when he said, “Nobody’s coming. Nobody is going to save our children. You have to save your own children.”

In Harlem, where thousands of parents apply for charter schools on civil rights grounds, State Senator Bill Perkins—whose civil liberties record I’ve previously praised in this column—is in danger of losing his seat because of his fierce opposition to charter schools. The UFT contributes to his campaigns. His opponent, Basil Smikle—who has worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Bill Clinton Foundation, and, unfortunately, Michael Bloomberg—says: “Education has galvanized the community.”

Also galvanized is the two-million-member state AFL-CIO, which has declared that a vote in the state legislature to expand the number of charter schools is anti-union. And the Working Families Party, financially backed by the United Federation of Teachers and the state teachers’ union, has a litmus test for candidates seeking its support—will they back strict limitations on charter schools? (New York Post, May 10, 2010).

As a union man since I organized my first union at 15 during the so-called Great Depression at a Boston candy store that employed students on nights and weekends—and then helped unionize radio station WMEX in Boston where I became shop steward—I am plain disgusted at the low point that the union crusade against charter schools has reached. Dig this from an April 29 Daily News editorial: “[The teachers’ unions] perniciously turned the world on its head by complaining that, because charter schools are concentrated in poor minority neighborhoods, they segregate ‘African-Americans and Latino students in a separate school system.’ ” Bill Perkins also makes this “segregation” charge.

As I’ve reported here, there are now more segregated public schools in big cities than when the Supreme Court ruled public-school segregation unconstitutional (1954). The betrayal of that decision began and continued long before there were ever charter schools, because of lower federal court decisions ultimately confirmed by the Supreme Court (Elena Kagan won’t be asked what she thinks about it at the confirmation hearing).

It is important to acknowledge, however, that some charter school managements are engaged in old-fashioned self-dealing and arrant unethical behavior that require strict accounting. There certainly are other very justified criticisms of some charter schools that do not accept special-ed students, English-language learners, and kids with various other learning disabilities. Rather than be caught in that utterly discriminatory act, a growing number of charter schools have opened their doors and are demonstrating that such students need not—and must not—be marginalized: for example, the Family Life Charter Academy Charter School in the Bronx, and the Opportunity Charter School in Harlem (New York Post, May 10, 2010).

My question to leaders of organized labor (including the other big national union, the National Education Association): Are these black parents stupid or so gullible that, seeing so many other parents mobilizing for charter schools, they go with the crowd?

As of this month, “about one in five students in central Harlem . . . is enrolled in charter schools. Thousands more are on waiting lists. . . . 91 percent of charter students passed the math tests, while 72 percent of District 5–zoned students did” (New York Post, April 19).

At one of Eva Moscowitz’s Harlem Success academies, “95 percent of third-graders passed the English exam last year, and 100 percent passed the math. But only 61 percent of third-graders at P.S.149 passed the (English-language) exam, and 79 percent passed the math.”

It’s hardly surprising that “four high-performing Ichan charter schools . . . netted 1,739 applicants for just 74 kindergarten slots . . . while at the Achievement First network schools, with high academic and disciplinary standards, there were 3,800 applications for 588 open seats” (New York Post, April 14, 2010).

There are, of course, non-charter public schools that begin to create lifelong learners and future college students. In the March 1 issue of The New York Times, reporter Winnie Hu illuminates Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick, New Jersey, that rebels, as more regular schools do, against the assembly-line testing-for-tests imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act: “This year, all 428 sixth-graders . . . are charting their own academic path with personalized student learning plans—electronic portfolios containing information about their learning styles, interests, skills, career goals, and extracurricular activities.”

I strongly recommend that every charter school, and all other schools, act on the recognition that any “education reform” that opens the future for students should begin with each individual student—no matter whether organized labor finds charter schools guilty of doing that.

But a very small story at the bottom of page 4 in the May 8 Post by Carl Campanile (who ought to be entered for a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting) gives me hope that even the UFT—despite its president, Mike Mulgrew, continually using charter schools as a punching bag—may begin to put children first.

Campanile tells of a surprise (to me) during a UFT presentation of its John Dewey Award to the NAACP for working with the union to block the Michael Bloomberg–Joel Klein attempt to shut down 19 “failing schools.” (As I reported in my last column: “The union announced an initiative with three community groups aimed at reducing student absenteeism in nine low-performing schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. They’re applying for a $30 million federal grant to fund the program.”)

With whom did the UFT partner in this crucial venture? The Harlem Children’s Zone, Children’s Aid Society, and Good Shepherd Services. Did the AFL-CIO give Mike Mulgrew permission to include that notorious charter school leader, Geoffrey Canada, in that partnership?

Importantly, Campanile’s story adds that “the proposal includes after-school instruction, keeping schools open until 6 p.m., and providing medical and family services in the school buildings” (emphasis added).

That’s called “Community Schools.” Mulgrew’s predecessor, Randi Weingarten, and I were often at odds during her leadership of the UFT. But we became allies, to our mutual surprise, when—accepting the leadership of the national United Federation of Teachers—she got to the true core and soul of education reform, including all gaps, even the racial one: “Can you imagine a federal law that promoted community schools—schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need. . . . A new vision of schools for the 21st century . . . open all day and offer after-school and evening recreational activities and homework assistance [including] child care and dental, medical, and counseling clinics (Times, July 15, 2008).

To Mike Mulgrew and Bill Perkins I ask a question—not for argumentative purposes but as seriously as I listen to Duke Ellington: Would you oppose any thoroughly verified community school if it chose not to have union teachers?