Repeat: Put children first

Monday, March 29, 2010

AN AGREEMENT has been reached that will allow a high-performing charter school to continue its critical work in Baltimore. But the good news -- that the teachers union softened its demands -- raises the question of why this ever was allowed to become an issue. How come Maryland gives special interests the power to undermine student interests? And isn't it time lawmakers change a policy that makes it hard for charter schools to be effective?

The KIPP Ujima Village Academy, the most successful public middle school in Baltimore, had to cut back its hours this year and lay off some staff because it couldn't afford union demands that it pay teachers an extra 33 percent for working more hours than other city teachers. KIPP officials threatened to pull out of the city, because the longer hours and Saturday academies that were key to the school's success in lifting the performance of inner-city children had become targets of the outlandish demands of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

That threat got national attention and, to the credit of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the two sides ended up at the bargaining table. The agreement announced this month provides for extra pay to teachers of 20.5 percent, a figure more in keeping with what other KIPP schools provide. The union's concessions are commendable. But we can't help but lament the valuable instruction time that has been lost this year or wonder what happens in a year when -- outside the glare of publicity -- the agreement must be renegotiated.

The real problem is the law requiring charter school teachers to belong to the union in their school districts and be subject to local contracts. Maryland is one of the few states with such an unreasonable requirement, and the result is the loss of autonomy that is central to the ability of charters to design environments that support student needs. It's clear from the timid education initiatives of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), and from their further dilution by the General Assembly, that the state's dominant Democrats are not inclined to do anything to rile organized labor in an election year. That means Maryland will continue to have one of America's worst charter school regimes.


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