A couple of weeks ago I was in a meeting of charter school business managers and an attorney was speaking about charter school employment issues. It happens that this attorney has been involved in the charter school movement since the very beginning in Colorado. He made the assertion that charter schools have an obligation to put the interests of their school before that of individual employees. This ruffled some feathers in the room.
The charter school movement was started by people who believed in at-will employment, the polar opposite of general public education, which is largely influenced by the teacher's union and their interests. In fact, many district administrators don't know a world that's any different. Everything they do is influenced by the collective bargaining agreement. They can't change the school calendar without getting approval from the teacher's union. They can't ask a teacher to do detention after school without it being a teacher's union issue.
But the exact opposite is true in charter schools where all employees are at-will in nature. Principals serve "at the pleasure" of the Board and can be terminated with a simple, "your skills are no longer needed at our charter school." There are no guaranteed terms, such as a year-long contract that would require a "buy-out" if the employee is terminated early.
So why were some of these business managers reacting to the attorney's statement that the needs of the charter school should take precedence over the needs of teachers? Because 18 years after the first charter school in Colorado, a vast majority of people who now work in charter schools COME from traditional public education. The union philosophy is embedded in their thought processes. And they can't see life being any different.
To be clear, the discussion was not about the value of classroom teachers, the appropriateness of their salaries nor the attribution of salary to the number of days worked.
The questions posed by the attorney were:
1. should the charter school knowingly generously, possibly over-compensate, an employee upon departure (voluntary or forced); does this meet the fiduciary responsibility required of charter school leaders?
2. have charter schools stayed true to the original charter school philosophy based on at-will employment?
For years I've talked about bureaucratic or regulation creep, meaning top-down requirements to in some ways have charter schools conform to traditional public schools. This is probably most evident in the vastly-more-sophisticated charter school application process that has developed over the years. The difference between what is required of a charter school applicant today is night and day different from 1993 when the Charter Schools Act passed.
One can wonder if this "creep" is improving the process or simply hindering it. Are charter schools going to gradually become the same as any district-operated public school system? Using the metaphor of the frog placed in a pot of water that gradually gets hotter until the frog is boiled, will charter school leaders even notice when they no longer operate with autonomy?