The Chicago Math and Science Academy is arguing that it is not a public institution; therefore, it should not have to allow teachers to form a union. The debate that has ensued provides interesting food for thought.
For example, one argument is that the school receives about 80% of its support from the state so it must be a public institution. That may be evidence of a public institution, but it isn't conclusive.
However, it seems to me that while the legal battle is about what is and isn't a public institution, the larger question is what is the purpose of a charter school and what role does it fill for the public. For example, there are many companies and organizations that receive public funds to do their work--research institutes, food service companies and others often rely heavily on public funding through contracts with school districts or other government entities. In this case they are obviously not public institutions. Even so, we insist that they follow the law and use public funds well or at least that our government representatives ensure that our public funds are used wisely.
In the same way, we want charter schools to use public funds wisely while fulfilling the role that we've contracted them to perform. A charter school must provide a good education. The question that I'm addressing is not necessarily a legal one. The question about unions is a practical and perhaps moral one. Should charter schools be subject to the same laws about unions whether or not they are public institutions?
The goal of having charter schools is to provide parent choice, but also to find ways to provide a good education or even a better education than surrounding schools. What if one of those ways is to allow teacher waivers and to use non-union teachers?
It seems to me that forcing charter schools to allow unions takes away one of the critical components of a charter school's strategy. To take away such a tool is like telling an auto mechanic that she can't use a lift to get a car up in the air to work on it. I can't go back and tell my mechanic that she should have finished the job faster, if I take away her tools or normal approach to fixing my car.
Here in Colorado, our charter schools exceed the state averages and, in general, out perform the local district schools. We do not have union schools. While this is only one variable, it's surprising to me that with all of the arguments against charter schools that are based on average performance of schools across the U.S. against the average schools in their neighborhoods. Critics (or even proponents) of charter schools have not done more research on why Colorado schools have been so successful.
CMSA may lose its legal battle, but the practical battle seems to support the idea that charter schools don't need union or even certified teachers to succeed. In this fight, I'd hope that the Illinois legislature and legislatures across the country would look at the facts and the substance and not so concerned about form and procedure. If a school serves the public, then it should be deemed worthy of public funding whether or not it allows a teachers' union.