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Q&A with Steve Barr: Lessons from charter schools in L.A. and New Orleans

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Steve Barr

Steve Barr has often found himself in the minority as a charter school founder who supports teacher unionization, albeit of a transformed nature. About 12 percent of charter schools nationally employ unionized teachers, according to recent data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Barr is probably best known for the 2008 takeover of Alain Leroy Locke High School in Los Angeles by the charter management organization he founded, Green Dot Public Schools. Barr has since left Green Dot, and expanded his work to New York City and New Orleans through his new organization, Future Is Now Schools (formerly Green Dot America). He lives in Los Angeles.

I spoke with him recently in New Orleans at John McDonogh High School, which Future Is Now will run starting in the 2012-13 school year.

Q: Explain to me how your contracts differ from traditional teachers union contracts.

A: So people dive right into the middle of the swamp of disagreement on this issue. But when you actually pull yourself up to a higher level, union contracts are mostly written in response to systems, and you can’t find more messed up or undemocratic systems in this country than [in] urban education: Decisions are made very centralized; teachers and parents and students are not part of the discussions. So when I started Green Dot, I spent a lot of time listening. What seemed to be very consistent with teachers was their inability to have a say in how decisions are made, how money is allocated, and their working conditions. So the real focus of the work of the model was … to create a school where we pay more, we ask for you to work a professional work day, and we ask you to help us create an evaluation system. That’s not a “gotcha” campaign, but we want an evaluation system that’s more data-driven, and we want you to be involved in decision-making at the school site. You see the success if teachers have buy-in and don’t feel like the reforms are foisted on them. So that really was the Green Dot charter model.

So for the higher pay and increased decision-making, teachers give up tenure?

I had union friends who kind of tutored me that “just cause” would be an acceptable alternative [to tenure]. It’s also the alternative to “at will.” Under “just cause” … there has to be a documented reason. You can’t just walk in and fire people. Some people have argued with me that there is very little difference between “just cause” and tenure. I would argue back that I’ve seen schools with tenure where principals can still have a very clear mission … This whole view that you can’t fire teachers is inconsistent.

We negotiated with our collective group of teachers … and the buy-in was pretty quick and swift. I recognized pretty quickly that it was generationally relevant … The older contracts are written for a workforce that stays in one job for 30 years, whereas this generation changes jobs five, six, seven times. [The status quo] was based on the fact that we didn’t want to pay more taxes to pay teachers better, so we made terrific deals at the time on health care. Those agreements now live in a time and place where the needs are opposite.

Why do you think it’s important that charter schools be open to unionization?

I’m not running around the country saying, “Hey, unionize all the charters.” Charter schools are supposed to be providing, I believe, R&D [research and development] for what school districts could become. I’m not building charter schools just to create oases, but rather to build some R&D … I don’t know if there’s a successful school that doesn’t have a pretty happy group of teachers that feel empowered. And there’s a lot of overlap between what unions typically fight for and teachers want. It seems to be a pretty complementary fit. But it was never like, “Hey, I’m doing this so I can pressure charter schools to go union.” Rather, unions can look at reforms more positively.

I’m of a generation that had a very positive union experience. I grew up with a single mom who was a waitress and dental assistant … She never had health insurance. There’s this point when you see your mom humiliated in front of you and it breaks this whole notion they are the end-all and gods of everything. When I was six years old, I was hit by a car. I flew 20 feet, broke both arms, shattered my back and went to the hospital. I don’t remember any of the pain. What I do remember like it was yesterday was the doctor saying, “You are uninsured? Take him to one of L.B.J.’s free clinics.” I just remember the look on my mom’s face to have her broken son right there and she couldn’t fix it. What a system?

When I was 18, I got a job at UPS, and I became a Teamster and I had what people now call “Cadillac health insurance.” I got paid much more than all of my other friends. But I also worked a job where you would literally lose five pounds a night loading trucks … The fact that I was well compensated and well taken care of in a very difficult job meant I had incredible loyalty to that company. That was new to me because I had always worked in restaurants or other jobs where you always felt like you were being [cheated] a bit. So the lesson wasn’t lost on me that collective bargaining isn’t evil, despite the fact that it’s under assault all the time. In fact, it’s an enhancer to the culture of an organization.

Do you think unions will ever make significant traction at charters?

To me, it’s such an uninteresting topic. I’m more interested in unions seeing the R&D of a Green Dot contract and working on that in a collaborative way with a school district. That, to me, is the reason to do it—not to move from a handful to a third of charters [that are unionized].

Was there ever a time in Locke’s history (since 2008) when you wished you didn’t have “just cause” in place?

No, I’m really proud of it. What people don’t realize is that when you actually empower teachers, they are a lot tougher on each other than we would be. Green Dot’s evaluation system was developed by teachers and is much tougher than I think a lot of reform groups do in their own policies. Testing is part of your evaluation—it’s not the dominant measure, but it’s one of the core ones. But the spirit of our evaluation system is not a “gotcha” one; it’s a rallying point for the teachers and organization which sometimes addresses deficiencies in professional development and mentoring. That’s such a logical alternative to sticking teachers in classrooms and hoping they do well with no one really asking: Is that a good teacher? … There’s not a lot of data-driven decisions or systems in public education. The data should be used not unlike a batting average: something we look at and value to help us get better.

If you had to distill very succinctly what the purpose of the charter school movement should be today, what would that be?

It’s always been a consistent one. First, it should create R&D. I think that’s more important than charter market share. At Green Dot, the mission when I was there was always the same: to change and reform [the Los Angeles Unified School District]. There were lots of times when we tried to approach superintendents and school board members and tried to figure out collaboration … When collaboration sometimes was exhausted or wasn’t rapid enough, then we got competitive.

Do you really think the charter movement is creating R&D at a significant level nationally? There really aren’t a lot of practices going back and forth between traditional school districts and charter schools in many places.

Probably the most important thing charters have done is create an alternative to the old “let’s throw up our hands” mentality. Now my critique is that if [charter advocates] were better at politics, they would be a much bigger force. If they figured out ways of finding common ground with unions, there wouldn’t be all this back-and-forth. Every other month there’s a study slamming the other one. It just goes on and on. After 12 years of this, that’s what probably frustrates me most is that I’m bored with it. There are so many kids that need help, and we’re having turf wars. At some point you have to look at both sides and wonder, Do they really buy what H.L. Mencken used to say, that politics is nothing more than shushing away hobgoblins? Is it subconsciously or consciously more fun to have a hobgoblin to fight away at all the time rather than figure out that there probably is 70 or 80 percent of stuff that we all agree on? We are just not willing to roll up our sleeves and have those conversations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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