Charter Schools Cost Unions Millions in Dues
Every charter teacher costs unions about $1,000 a year
Conventional public school districts may covet the taxpayer dollars that follow a student when parents choose to enroll their child in a Michigan "public school academy" — also known as a charter school. But that isn’t the only motive behind the intense political campaign aimed at limiting the number of public charter schools, or even shutting them down altogether (see the Abed amendment). Union efforts to maintain the flow of school employee dues might be an even stronger motive.
For teacher unions and those politically and financially dependent on them, charter schools represent a significant threat. In academically failing school districts, charters may even be seen as an existential threat to the status quo public school establishment. The Michigan right-to-work law enacted in late 2012 may already be having a negative impact on union coffers. Less recognized is that public charter schools also deplete potential union membership, in numbers that rival the right-to-work law.
A total of 9,645 teachers worked in Michigan charter schools in 2014. Another 2,000 paraprofessionals, or classroom assistants, were employed there. But only about 200 teachers work at the rare unionized charter school. These statistics are based on Michigan Department of Education data and pertain exclusively to full-time employees.
"There's a reason teachers unions don't like charter schools,” said Audrey Spalding, the director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “It's all about membership and union dues. Every charter schoolteacher costs the union as much as $1,000 annually. That's a big motivation for unions to try to limit the growth of charter schools."
Despite union rhetoric, eliminating Michigan’s right-to-work law was politically improbable in 2014. But the Michigan Education Association and its allies have focused their sights on another target, and that is charter schools.
Beginning last summer, a rash of media reports derided the performance of Michigan’s charter schools, accompanied by allegations that they lack transparency and accountability. Then, in the run-up to the fall's general election, House Democrats introduced legislation to place a moratorium on any additional charter schools.
Counterpoints to and repudiations of these attacks and the rhetoric used to support them have been provided in Michigan Capitol Confidential articles. (For example, despite claims to the contrary, charter schools are subject to the same transparency standards as conventional public schools.)
Outweighing right-to-work, the critical backdrop to the war on charter schools being waged by the status quo public education establishment and its allies in the media, and by some members of the Legislature and state board of education is the law passed in 2011 phasing out an artificial cap on the number of charter schools.
Previously, only 150 charters could be authorized by state universities, the most common method of chartering. The cap was gradually increased, and then eliminated altogether on Jan. 1, 2015. It is probably no coincidence that media and political attacks on charters began to ramp up as this date approached.
It was always apparent that giving parents more choices presented conventional school districts and teacher unions with new challenges. But the magnitude of these challenges may have been significantly underestimated.
Nancy Knight, spokeswoman for the MEA, did not respond to a telephone message offering her the opportunity to comment.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.