At some point, we ought to acknowledge that the traditional union contract is incompatible with the untraditional concept of charter schools. That should be easier to do now that the nation’s first union-led charter school is struggling to stay open.

The traditional union contract is incompatible with the untraditional concept of charter schools.

Now seven years old, the UFT Charter School is one of the lowest performing schools in New York City (it has scored two Ds on the city’s report card in three years) and its authorizer, the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, will soon consider whether to renew its charter.

This is a bad development for the United Federation of Teachers, considering that former UFT President Randi Weingarten said in 2005 that the school would “finally dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success.” Many factors certainly may have contributed to the dismal achievement at the school, where less than a third of students are reading at grade level. But if anything, the UFT has shown us that union contracts are a poor fit for successful charters.

About 12 percent of the nation’s charter schools are unionized, according to 2010 data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. More than half of those have contracts because state laws impose collective bargaining on charters. The other half includes schools that have seen growing disinterest among teachers to maintain unions that were first organized by employees who left after a few years.

To be sure, the contracts themselves aren’t carbon copies of district union contracts. Last year, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) reviewed the contracts of nine unionized charter schools and found they do tend to respect the unique mission of the school and they often include teachers in organizational decisions. But they generally don’t let principals evaluate teachers based on classroom performance, and they tend to constrain leadership with the same compensation models found in traditional schools.

The best charters work because management and faculty work in a collaborative environment; collective bargaining is adversarial by nature and tends to imperil the freedom and flexibility that charter leaders need to manage their resources. Weingarten dismissed that reality when she told reporters seven years ago that the UFT Charter School would show “real, quantifiable student achievement” with a union contract.

CRPE last year urged researchers to further explore the connection between unionization and student outcomes. The troubles at UFT Charter should make that task a priority.

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