September issue's cover story:

What Really Happened to the Charter School Bill?

[sidebar story: Other State's Successes with Charter Schools]

by Erica Olsen

he National Education Association (NEA) has made no attempt to hide its disdain for one education reform that is changing America’s education system—charter schools.

"The NEA and unions in general have consistently worked, and are working, to water down charter school laws in state after state," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform.

In the recently concluded Nevada legislative session, state senators found themselves up against the forces of our own Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), which succeeded in drastically changing charter school legislation at the last minute.

Publicly funded, charter schools are legally and fiscally autonomous educational entities operating within the public school system under "charters" or contracts that are granted based on the mission of the school. The idea is that better educational performance has too often become a casualty of nightmarish legal and fiscal constraints currently burdening school administrators. Examples would be state laws and collective bargaining contracts that prevent the firing of clearly incompetent teachers, or block the rational allocating of budget monies to reward deserving teachers.

Because many of those rules are precisely the result of teacher union collective bargaining contracts or intense state political activity by teacher unions, the NEA, as Allen noted, lobbies fiercely whenever charter school laws are passed.

Nevada’s bipartisan charter school measure, Senate Bill 220, was a carefully crafted piece of legislation that initially had the support of the teachers’ union, parents and administrators, explains Senator Maurice Washington (R-Sparks), co-sponsor of SB 220.

"We brought them to the table and they all had input in the bill," he said. "They [teacher union representatives] were involved from the start."

Bill sponsors Senators Washington, Valerie Wiener (D-Las Vegas), Jon Porter (R-Boulder City) and Ernie Adler (D-Carson City) hammered out three concerns brought up by the union in Senate hearings: collective bargaining, licensing and course studies. The resulting agreement, Washington said, accommodated the union on each point:

• Optional collective bargaining: Teachers could be part of the district’s bargaining unit where the charter school is located, form their own bargaining unit or negotiate individual contracts with the school’s governing body.

• Teacher licensure: 100 percent of teachers in first through sixth grades would be licensed by the Nevada State Board of Education and 50 percent in grades six through 12.

• Course studies exemption: Charter schools would be exempt from mandated course studies except courses required for graduation, i.e., math, America history, sciences, English, etc.

"We asked the teachers’ union if it would support the bill and we were told yes. We knew if they did not like it, it wasn’t going anywhere." Washington explained.

After SB 220 was passed in the Senate’s Human Resources and Facilites Committee in late April, NSEA Lobbyist Debbie Cahill told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the union now found the legislation acceptable.

"We’re comfortable with the amended bill approved by the [Education] Committee," She said. "We can support it."

Under the Union's Wing
Despite the bipartisan coalition of support, the agreement worked out between concerned parties and the unanimous approval by the Senate, Assembly Education Committee Chairman Wendell Williams (D-Las Vegas) stopped SB 220 in his committee for two months. Williams, who was instrumental in killing similar legislation in the 1996 session, told the Las Vegas Sun that he did not think his committee would pass the Senate version of the bill. Just when the bill’s sponsors thought all of the session’s hard work would die in committee, Williams held a committee meeting on the Assembly floor, an acceptable procedure during the last days of the session when rules are suspended, and introduced his own amendments. The first time his committee members saw the amendments was at a press conference right before the Assembly floor session where the bill was voted on, according to Assemblywoman Barbara Cegavske (R-Las Vegas), a member of the committee.

"Nobody was given the opportunity to work on the bill on our side [the Assembly] except Wendell," she said. "I felt it needed to have a legitimate hearing."

Williams’ amendments were modeled after a law in Louisiana where only three charter schools have opened since 1995. Bill sponsors, who started working on the bill during the legislative interim, incorporated the best legislation from other states that have strong, working charter schools and Louisiana is not one of them.

Bill sponsors agreed on some of the amendments that were made. However there were three changes that were not agreed upon but "slipped in," said Cegaske. The most significant change was the collective bargaining provision which was changed by the teachers’ union even though it had agreed to the original language months earlier. Instead of collective bargaining being optional, charter school teachers must negotiate employment contracts as part of the school district bargaining unit: the NSEA local.

"We didn’t know [the mandated collective bargaining agreement] was going to be in there," Cegaske said. "It defeated the whole purpose of the charter school bill."

Al Bellister, NSEA researcher and lobbyist, contradicts the comments his fellow lobbyist Cahill made after the bill was approved by the Senate committee. He contends the Senate version of the bill mandated collective bargaining. "Our position didn’t change," he said. "Modifications were made to address Assemblyman Williams’ concerns, not ours. We support charter schools as provided in Senate version of SB 220, but they had to be publicly responsible."

According to the union, being publicly responsible means all charter school teachers must be public employees. According to state law, employment contracts for all public school teachers must be negotiated between the school district and the teacher bargaining unit, which is, of course, the teachers’ union.

"Nevada public policy says collective bargaining is the vehicle for labor management relations for employees," said Bellister. "When SB 220 was finally passed (in the Senate) it didn’t have any bargaining options."

However the bill’s language in the second reprint, the version passed by the Senate, did allow charter school teachers a choice:

"An employee of a charter school retains the right to bargain collectively or to refrain from bargaining collectively…employees of a charter school may remain part of the appropriate existing bargaining unit of a school district if the choice to remain is specifically agreed upon by more than 50 percent of the employees" (SB 220, Section 27).

Although NSEA representatives now claim to have never supported any such provision, Senator Washington said the NSEA knew exactly what bargaining provisions were in the bill both before and after Williams’ actions on the Assembly floor.

"On the day of the press conference NSEA lobbyist Debbie Cahill said to me, ‘Oh by the way, we changed the bargaining agreement.’" Washington said. "What they [Cahill and other lobbyists] did was uncalled for."

Senator Adler says position changes are just part of the legislative process. "It’s difficult to get the same bill passed on both sides [of the legislature]," he said. "I think people are overreacting to the changes. I was just happy we got the bill passed."

But a Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial on July 7 did not think the changes were minor:

"As the bill finally lurched back into view in the closing days of the session it was hardly recognizable… What was once a good-faith effort at reform has been purposely rewritten to make it totally ineffective in offering any alternative path out of the existing bureaucratic swamp, by guaranteeing that new charter schools would be just as deeply mired in that same suffocating ooze from day one."

A Public School in Name

The point of charter schools is to get out of the stymied, bureaucracy-ridden, union-controlled public school system, according to Norman Lockman, associate editor of the Wilmington News Journal. Viewed in that light, the last-minute Williams-NSEA changes to the bill made it essentially useless, since it now offers no relief from regulations bargained by the teacher’s union.

"The new and rapidly proliferating charter schools are the result of a yearning for the style of old-fashioned public schools that were autonomous, child-focused and results-oriented," editorialized Lockman in the Reno Gazette-Journal. "Principals can hire and fire at will and they can set promotion and graduation standards."

If teachers are allowed to negotiate employment contracts only through the teachers’ union, principals have no management control, explains Washington.

"It’s just a public school in name," he says. "This bill takes away the competitiveness between charter schools and public schools. Charter schools are based on performance. Because performance is the basis of the contract negotiated between the district and the charter school, you have to have leverage with employees. If you have collective bargaining, you take away the leverage. You have no incentives. They have taken the teeth out of charter schools."

Williams’ other amendments also helped the union although not as much as the collective bargaining change. Teacher licensure was also changed requiring that 75 percent of all teachers be licensed across the board. Courses of study were changed to mandate that the schools teach exactly what is taught in public schools, with no exceptions. The number of schools allowed changed from 25 to 21, but with an unlimited number of charter schools permitted if specifically geared to "at-risk" students.

Look at Other States

A great "victory" was claimed when Williams targeted the bill to focus on at-risk students. This shows how many misconceptions are running rampant in Nevada about charter schools. Of the 101 charters surveyed in a National Charter Public School Study, half (51) willingly characterize their charters as specifically designed to serve "at-risk" students, according to the Education Commission of the States’ "Survey of Approved Charter Schools." Further, a study conducted by the Hudson Institute found that charter schools around the nation average 63 percent minority enrollment and 19 percent of students have disabilities or impediments affecting their education. It also found that 55 percent of charter students are poor and 19 percent have limited English proficiency. These statistics should eliminate the concerns that charter schools are elitist and that they will drop the burden of special education students on the public school system, as has been wrongly claimed by the Nevada PTA and Williams.

Maybe Next Session

Perhaps the charter school legislation would have had a chance to help reform the public schools system if the teachers’ union had addressed its concerns in the beginning, suggests Washington. Instead lobbyists waited until the bill was in the hands of a union-friendly legislator to raise their real concerns.

As a former teachers’ union member, Williams’ support of the NSEA agenda comes as no surprise. NSEA contributed as much to his campaign as the gaming industry in the 1996 elections, according to his listed campaign contributions as reported to the Nevada Secretary of State.

Lobbyists for both Washoe and Clark County School Districts used the same tactics.

"If we would have had a fair hearing in the Assembly, if the union would have dealt honestly, if the districts would have addressed their concerns, we could have properly dealt with all of the issues," says Washington. "But everyone shied away until the last minute because no one wanted the spotlight on them. Their [the NEA’s] word stood for nothing. Their credibility is gone."

Now, the teachers’ union is completely happy. The largely toothless bill that passed conveniently keeps the union in control of Nevada’s public schools --- at least for two more years.

Erica Olsen is Managing Editor of Nevada Journal

[sidebar story: Other State's Successes with Charter Schools]

1997 NEA Resolutions

Following are the resolutions regarding education reform passed at the NEA Annual Convention on July 4 in Atlanta, Georgia:

A-1. Public Education. The Association believes that its members should support public education by sending their children to public educational institutions.

A-9. Public School Buildings. The Association believes that closed public school buildings should be sold or leased only to those organizations that do not provide direct educational services to students and/or are not in direct competition with public schools.

A-14. Basic Financial Support of Public Education. Funds must be provided for programs to alleviate race, gender and sexual orientation discrimination and to eliminate portrayal of race, gender and sexual orientation stereotypes in the public schools. The Association opposes the use of public revenues for private, parochial, or other nonpublic pre-K through 12 schools.

A-26. Deleterious Programs. The National Education Association believes that the following programs and practices are detrimental to public education and must be eliminated: privatization, performance contracting, tax credits for tuition to private and parochial schools, voucher plans (or funding formulas that have the same effect as vouchers), planned program budgeting systems (PPBS) and evaluations by private, profit-making groups.

A-27. Federally or State-Mandated Choice/Parental Option Plans. The Association opposes federally or state-mandated choice or parental option plans.

A-28. Voucher Plans and Tuition Tax Credits. The National Education Association believes that voucher plans and tuition tax credits or funding formulas that have the same effect under which pre-K through 12 nonpublic school education is subsidized by tax monies undermine public education, reduce the support needed to adequately fund public education and have the potential for racial, economic and social segregation of children. The Association opposes all attempts to establish and/or implement such plans.


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