My initial reaction to the news (here and here ) that teachers at a KIPP school in New York City have voted to unionize included several variants on four letter words. But now, with the perspective of some time, I can offer a more refined view. You have to give it to the people who work at the American Federation of Teachers. They are good at their jobs.

Remember ??the AFT's impeccably-timed plant of a New York Times story about how charter schools performed worse than traditional public schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress? It was August 2004???August being a perfect time to catch members of the charter school community napping away their summer vacations, and 2004 being an election year with an incumbent Republican president who strongly supported charter schools. (If you don't remember this episode, you can read a whole book about it.)

And now? The incoming Democratic president is a strong charter supporter, so frontal attacks are out. Instead, go after the most prized jewel of the charter movement (KIPP) and strike right at the heart of its model. Consider the fourth of KIPP's five ???pillars???:

4. Power to Lead . The principals of KIPP schools are effective academic and organizational leaders who understand that great schools require great school leaders. They have control over their school budget and personnel. They are free to swiftly move dollars or make staffing changes, allowing them maximum effectiveness in helping students learn.

Farewell to that.

So is this a big deal? Absolutely. Eduwonk Andy may be right that the Green Dot chain of charter schools operates successfully under collective bargaining agreements, and that what matters are the details of the contracts, but does anyone expect those UFT-written details to be simpatico with KIPP's fourth pillar? On this one, Jeanne Allen has it closer to the truth when she tells the Times that ???A union contract is actually at odds with a charter school.??? Most of the time, it is.

After all, what makes charter schools distinct? Yes, they are schools of choice, but so are most public schools these days, at least in urban environments. Yes, they tend to be small, but so are lots of district schools. Yes, they tend to have a specific mission or theme, but so do magnet schools. Charters are unique, I would argue, because of their autonomy???which means freedom from central office dictates, and freedom from teacher union contract constraints. Take away either of these freedoms, and you lose much of the power of the charter idea.

One last point: The KIPP teachers surely have a point when they worry about turnover. I happen to agree that the KIPP model is not sustainable at scale, precisely because it relies on the ???superstar teacher??? strategy. Still, the world is better off with 50 KIPPs than without (and would be better yet with 100 more). But if we want 1,000 or 10,000 great urban schools, I don't think KIPP is the answer. (Steve Wilson agrees.) But unionized charter schools sure aren't the answer, either.

Photograph by Jef Poskanzer on Flickr
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