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Court loss to dilute improved education outcomes

Louisiana law sometimes helps charter schools maintain their independence and facilitates the benefits of school choice, but sometimes it works against this.

Earlier this year, these schools won a battle to maintain public funding for some of them when the Louisiana Supreme Court correctly ruled them as public schools, even if run privately. A union and school district filed a legal challenge alleging they weren’t, but the Court astutely noted that the schools in question, which fell into a special chartering category, contrary to the plaintiffs argument met the test that they were as “public schools” didn’t equate to “city and parish school systems.”

Thus, one attempt by anti-choice forces to knock out a segment of charter schools failed. But on another front they succeeded last week in federal court.

A U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled against a New Orleans charter school operator that sought to prevent unionization. The three judges wrote that, despite a designation as a public school, it saw the intertwining of federal and state law – labor law and education law, respectively – causing in the eyes of the federal government for it to treat Louisiana charter schools as non-government entities.

In essence, the very political independence that serves as a strength of charter schools also means federal law sees these as private sector entities that must conform to federal labor law that imposes collective bargaining activity. The court even explicitly rejected that the funding decision decided under state law automatically ratified that charter schools must exist as political subdivisions; in other words, “public school” didn’t equate to “political subdivision.”

That determined, this sets up an interesting experiment. With this decision, now four charter schools in New Orleans must submit to union influence, and whether such influence makes them less effective is the major question.

The problem is that, as separate entities, schools individually must spend large sums to come up with a deal. While some may have the chance to draw upon outside resources as parts of larger networks, standalone schools face a severe financial disadvantage when facing off against unions allied nationally. Not only does this forced conflict take away precious classroom resources, it also creates a disincentive to resist the more rapacious demands of unions which additionally dilute effectiveness.

It shouldn’t be long before these deleterious effects become noticeable. A couple of years have passed since the first contracts went into effect, and in a couple of more years the data will exist to compare progress of unionized with nonunionized schools, although analysts will have to disentangle the impact as it relates to whether a school has selective admissions, which might require even more years of data.

Unions have served as a major impediment towards improved education in America, because they put the wants of adults ahead of the needs of children. This decision only increases that burden, and changing the federal law to allow charter schools that don’t want collective bargaining immunity from it merits Congressional consideration.

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