Charter school debate exposes tensions within teachers union

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STATE HOUSE — Leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association has vowed to fight a ballot initiative to expand charter schools with everything it has, but the issue has exposed strife within the union heading into new leadership elections in May.

The MTA Board of Directors over the weekend backed away from a plan put forward by President Barbara Madeloni to commit $9.6 million in union resources to the “Keep the Cap” campaign to fight charter expansion.

Instead, the decision over how much union money to commit to the political campaign has been postponed until the annual meeting in May when Madeloni will be seeking re-election as union president.

The union has also adopted an aggressive posture as leading Democrats in the Legislature eye a path toward compromise over lifting the cap on charter schools this year, making clear their unwillingness to negotiate any deal that includes a lifting of the cap.

“We will not accept any lift of the cap. That is not part of our equation,” Madeloni told the News Service this week.

Madeloni’s position seemed to echo the one in an email sent out last Wednesday by Educators for a Democratic Union, an informal caucus within the MTA, that suggested any attempt to work with lawmakers to resolve the charter school debate would be “total surrender.”

The risk in that strategy is that if the ballot question were to pass, the union would have to swallow a cap increase with none of the charter school reforms being contemplated by legislators, and in particular Senate leaders.

“We believe that any attempt at compromise will be a total surrender to the charter school movement,” the group wrote. “Any negotiated legislative deal will allow for more charter schools. We also believe that the so-called attempts to ‘reform’ charter funding formulas and enrollment policies will only serve to strengthen and legitimize the charter model.”

Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo both support increasing access to parents to choose charter schools if they desire, and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg recently came out to say he would attempt to forge a compromise in the more skeptical Senate on a charter school reform that would not only look at the cap, but also enrollment practices, funding and student body make-up.

While Madeloni said she would not accept any lift in the charter cap, she did say she would be willing to share ideas with lawmakers about how charter schools, in her opinion, could be more responsive to student needs.

“It’s very surprising and disappointing that the MTA would walk away from the table so early in the process. There’s no reason for them to do that at this point,” said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association. “The whole purpose of a union is to negotiate and a good union would be a really good negotiator and not walk away from the negotiating table.”

The union’s position could further complicate efforts in the Senate to reach a deal over charters. One lawmaker intimately involved in the charter school issue declined to comment on the rhetoric emanating from the union for fear of further inflaming an already tense situation.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate chair of the Education Committee who is leading the Senate’s charter reform bill writing efforts, said she’s heard of disagreement within the ranks of the charter movement as well.

“I plan on soliciting the input of educators, whether it comes from the MTA or not….,” Chang-Diaz said. “Would it be helpful to have active input, yes? But we will not be hamstrung by that.”

The MTA’s board of directors met on Saturday where they were pitched on a plan that would have committed $9.6 million in financial resources to its political campaign to stop a charter school enrollment cap lift.

The discussion took place behind closed doors in executive session to the consternation of some union members who wanted to have the debate publicly. Deb McCarthy, the chair of the MTA’s government relations committee, was forced to leave the room for the charter campaign discussion, and posted a lengthy open letter on Facebook calling the process a “debacle.”

She said that she believes the only reason to go into executive session would be “so that our union members would not know how their elected, representative board voted in regards to an aggressive campaign to fight charters.”

Under the proposal, directors were to take the week to seek feedback from local presidents before they reconvened in a meeting this Sunday when they were to vote the funding for the campaign. Instead, an alternative proposal was adopted to continue using existing resources to finance anti-charter activities through May, when funding would be reconsidered to keep the campaign afloat through the November election, according to MTA Vice President Janet Anderson.

Since Saturday, frustration with the process has boiled over online and into social media where union members representing factions within the MTA have traded salvos, publicly exposing internal tension among teachers over the direction of their union.

“The current climate on the Board, which has been building steadily over the past year and a half, discourages Board members from entering into a debate and speaking freely on the issues. There is a constant threat that our words and opinions will be publicly maligned and deliberately misconstrued,” Anderson wrote in a notice on her website.

Anderson, who is running for union president in May, did not return a call from the News Service seeking comment. In her letter, however, Anderson raised concerns over the legal case currently before the Supreme Court that could halt the practice of charging non-union teachers an “agency fee” to cover collective bargaining expenses, a decision that could choke off a source of funding for the union.

“With the Friedrich’s decision on the horizon and the real threat of losing agency fee, the Board is all too aware of the financial threats our organization faces,” Anderson wrote.

Madeloni declined to discuss the nature of the debate over the charter campaign that occurred among board members in executive session, and also would not disclose how much money the union has on hand to fund its “Keep the Cap” campaign through May.

“I can say that the funding that we have we’re going to put it right out there to continue our work, go out there and dig down deep and build a grassroots movement. I think the grassroots movement is really going to win this thing,” Madeloni said.

While over $9 million in political spending by the teacher’s union could put it on balanced footing with pro-charter interests, the union’s history of political spending raises questions about it’s ability to put such heft behind a campaign.

Organizers within the pro-charter coalition Great Schools Massachusetts say as much as $18 million in total could be spent on its efforts, including $8 million to $12 million on a ballot campaign alone and additional support to bring pressure for a legislative solution.

With the backing of local supporters and deep-pocketed out-of-state interest groups like the New York-based Families for Excellent Schools, sums of that magnitude would dwarf what unions such as the MTA have put behind past ballot campaigns.

The most the MTA has put behind a ballot campaign in the past eight years has been the $3.5 million behind an effort to oppose a 2008 ballot question to repeal the state income tax. Teachers unions combined spent $5.7 million on that effort.

Madeloni expressed confidence that the union would commit enough financial capital to mount a “good, strong, deep ground game” against the ballot drive to lift the charter cap. She also downplayed the apparent tensions within the ranks of the union.

“That’s democracy, people talking to each other, people disagreeing with each other. I think it’s a sign of a healthy union when people are out their arguing positions,” she said.

Kenen said he believes the case for more charters has gotten stronger since polling last summer showed strong support for lifting the cap.

“Since the governor has taken such a strong stance of support and now Speaker DeLeo coming out so strongly in support we’re feeling that impact on the ground,” he said.

Kenen also tried to blunt criticism that the pro-charter movement was being funded by wealthy out-of-state interests.

“Most of the money for the ballot question will be in-state and this will be decided not by who has more money but by more support and we’re very confident that charter schools have very strong support in communities across the state. We see it all the time,” he said.

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service