Charter schools’ ‘Uberization’ of teaching profession hurts kids too

Charter schools’ ‘Uberization’ of teaching profession hurts kids too
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Earlier this month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosACLU slams DeVos's Title IX plan: Changes will make it 'less safe' for sex assault survivors Department of Education unveils new rules to protect those accused of sexual harassment Millions being spent on U.S. Marshals Service security detail for DeVos: report MORE visited two of the highest performing charter schools in New Orleans and praised the city as a “great example” for education reform. It’s not a surprise that DeVos chose New Orleans for her visit. The Trump administration has championed charter schools, and researchers have shown that the school reforms in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina have improved student outcomes. But these reforms are not the best we can do.

Charter schools—publicly funded, but privately managed organizations that are typically released from many district regulations and union contracts—have rapidly expanded in urban areas across the U.S. over the last three decades. In New Orleans, over 90 percent of public school students now attend charter schools. In Detroit and Washington, D.C., half of all public school students do. Several other cities are emulating New Orleans, working to bring charter schools ‘to scale’ so that they make up the majority of schools in an area. 

But New Orleans has a long way to go before its schools provide a high-quality education to all students, at least one that is worth emulating.

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Even reformers in the city commonly say that most schools there are no longer failing, but they have only improved from an “F” to a “C.” The hard work is going from a “C” to an “A.” That requires hiring and retaining the best teachers. But the deregulated hiring practices that are characteristic of the charter movement may actually make it difficult for schools, in New Orleans and elsewhere, to ever reach that “A.”

Because what’s bad for teachers is bad for students.

The primary goal of charter schools is to increase and improve options for families, to encourage choice, and to introduce competition into public schools as if they were businesses. Conservatives argue that this element of market competition in the public school system will make all schools better.

Charter schools not only dramatically alter education for students and their families, but also for teachers. When charter schools predominate in a city, they de-professionalize teaching. Just as Uber and other ridesharing programs have displaced professional drivers, charter schools displace professional teachers.

For teachers, charter schools have introduced higher rates of turnover, the lack of collectively bargained contracts, and longer work hours for lower and less transparent pay. Teachers in charter schools work in precarious work environments without job security compared to traditional public schools. In several states, teachers who work in charter schools do not even need to be licensed or receive training.

I have interviewed nearly 200 teachers in cities with large shares of charter schools—New Orleans, Detroit, and San Antonio. Teachers have described to me how the lack of transparency and predictability in their salaries led them to move from school to school in search of better working conditions. This has led to tremendous turnover in schools that already want for stability.

In traditional school districts, job openings and salary scales are typically posted in a centralized location, to ensure equal opportunities and to limit allegations of discrimination. In charter schools, the lack of any transparent salary schedule, which describes how raises are awarded, could lead to pay disparities based on race and gender, patterns that we already observe in the private sector.

Charter school policies have fostered what economists call a “dual labor market” in education. In the traditional sector, teachers enjoy predictable hours, job stability, and protections. In the charter sector, teachers must endure short-term contract work, high mobility, and lower wages.

For example, it is difficult for an Uber driver to earn a living wage or move beyond short-term employment into a professional driving position. Charter school teachers feel similarly trapped. They are often unable to move into traditional public school positions that have higher salaries, reasonable work hours, pensions, and other long-term benefits.

When charter schools comprise a small segment of the labor market, they find teachers who tolerate high turnover, fewer job protections, and the lack of strong retirement benefits, by seeking those who are less experienced. When the charter sector encompasses the majority of schools in a city, however, it disrupts the entire system, not solely as reformers intend, and de-professionalizes the occupation.

But it’s not just teachers who pay the price for this disruption. Students’ lives and educations are also disrupted. Charter schools are often concentrated in urban areas and serve large proportions of low-income students and students of color, so the churn of teachers and instability often harm the students who need the most support and stability.

Constant churn prevents schools from collectively and continuously improving themselves, practices that are necessary to achieve real equity and excellence in education. Some turnover in schools can be positive, as when low-performing teachers are let go, but research shows that turnover can be so disruptive that it lowers student achievement in places where students struggle the most.

Students need stable schools as much as they need stable personal lives.

Efforts are underway to foster stability in several unstable occupations. In New York City, the taxi drivers’ union has started to organize drivers for Uber and Lyft, recognizing them as their peers rather than as a threat. Similarly, national teachers unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, which have in the past resisted charter schools, are trying to organize and represent all teachers. These efforts have the potential to improve working conditions for teachers in charter schools and, ultimately, improve students’ experiences.

Betsy DeVos believes that charter schools and expansive school-choice policies are best for children. But state and local policymakers need only glance at actual charter-school operations to see that the situation is more complicated. Charter schools are losing large numbers of teachers because of poor working conditions. Traditional public schools, too, have a long way to go to provide teachers with livable wages, as the recent protests and strikes indicate. But their democratic structure has required them to be responsive to unions and teacher demands. And conditions are still often much worse in charter schools.

Charter schools have an important role to play alongside traditional public schools. But policymakers should reconsider taking charters “to scale” without considering the implications for teachers and students.

Teaching is not a “gig” – teachers facilitate the learning and knowledge for the next generation of citizens.

Policymakers should ensure that there are safeguards and job security for teachers. Simply, this can mean predictability and transparency in jobs and pay. These efforts can reduce turnover in charter schools, which, in turn, should improve student outcomes in ways that are sustainable.

Huriya Jabbar is an assistant professor in Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.