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What Charter Schools Can Teach Us About Teacher Voice

by Richard D. Kahlenberg & Halley Potter - March 09, 2015

Charter schools were originally proposed as vehicles to give teachers more leadership opportunities; however, the sector has evolved to focus on empowering management over teachers, and today just 7% of charter schools are unionized. This commentary piece explores what lessons can be drawn from the experiences of charter schools, both positive and negative, and how to run schools and structure the teaching profession to build and retain strong teachers. A subset of charter schools are pioneering new avenues for empowering teachers that could be adopted in other public school settings.

In the early 1990s, an energetic young senator in Minnesota’s state legislature set out to pass legislation for a new kind of public school. Ember Reichgott (later Reichgott Junge) hoped these “charter schools” would give teachers increased leadership opportunities and curb rising turnover in the profession. “Many teachers were frustrated with their work and were leaving the profession. I wanted to give them more ownership,” she later reflected (Reichgott Junge, 2005, p. 9).

In 1991, Minnesota passed a charter school law, the first of its kind in the country. Now, more than two decades later, 42 states have charter school laws, and more than 2.5 million children nationwide attend charter schools (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2013, 2014). But how well have charter schools achieved the original goals of empowering teachers and reducing teacher turnover? And what can the charter school movement teach us about the role of teacher voice in public education moving forward?

By looking at what has worked in charter schools—as well as what has not—we can draw a variety of lessons from the evolution of the charter school movement about how to run schools and structure the teaching profession to build and retain strong teachers. 

The first big lesson from charter schools on teacher voice is that empowering management over teachers comes at a cost. In 1988, teacher union leader Albert Shanker was one of the first to articulate the idea for charter schools. He suggested that these teacher-led schools would maintain a union safety net but operate with waivers from some contract elements to promote flexibility (Shanker, 1988).

As the idea for charter schools grew, however, conservatives saw in charters’ flexibility a chance to circumvent teacher unions. Chester Finn, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under President Reagan, doubted the value of charter schools as first proposed by Shanker and others but became a supporter of a revised vision for charters, arguing that “the single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit” (quoted in “Unions Consider,” 1996). Today, just 7% of charter schools are unionized (Rebarber & Zgainer, 2014). Charter school teachers report working longer hours, with less generous pay raises and benefits, than district teachers (Goldring, Gray, & Bitterman, 2013; Miron & Urschel, 2010; Burian-Fitzgerald, 2005).

The cost of a management-focused model for charter schools appears to be increased teacher turnover, which can in turn harm student learning (Ronfeldt, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2011). As of 2012-2013, annual teacher turnover in charter schools was 17% higher than in district schools: 18.4% vs. 15.7% (Goldring, Taie, & Riddles, 2014). A 2012 analysis suggested that a key factor in the higher turnover rates seen in charter schools may be teacher frustrations.  Among teachers who left the teaching profession, 19% of teachers from charter schools cited dissatisfaction with the school as their main reason for leaving, compared to just 7% of teachers from district schools. Among teachers who moved to another school at the end of the year, 13% of teachers who had been in charter schools cited a better salary or benefits package as their main reason for moving, compared to 6% of teachers from district schools (Stuit & Smith, 2012).

Some charter school networks, such as Rocketship Education, have argued that high teacher turnover is not an issue as long as their schools post strong student test scores and rely on recruitment partners such as Teach for America to bring in a steady stream of new teachers (Whitmire, 2014). But there are reasons to worry about high teacher turnover even in networks where student test scores are high and replacement teachers are plentiful. The easiest way to make high teacher turnover work without sacrificing student test scores is to have very prescriptive guidelines to bring first-year teachers up to speed. However, if teachers are following recipes, will they be able to teach higher-order skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving, which are not always captured in standardized tests? Furthermore, constant churn weakens an organization’s culture. If teachers feel like they are highly replaceable cogs in a machine, a school network might start to lack the internal support it needs to function well.

Some charter school networks are beginning to try out new policies to help improve working conditions for teachers, give teachers more input in school decisions, and curb teacher turnover. The KIPP charter school network, where about one in three teachers left the classroom in 2012–2013, has begun offering on-site childcare for employees at some of its schools (Monahan, 2014). Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, D.C., which suffered roughly 50% teacher turnover in 2008–2009, has created a number of new channels for teacher input in hopes of reducing teacher turnover to 20% (Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014).

A second big lesson on teacher voice from the charter sector is one for teacher unions: unions need fresh approaches to engage younger teachers and rethink the teaching profession. Charter school teachers are on average younger and less experienced than their district counterparts (Goldring, et al., 2013). Part of the reason that most charter schools are not unionized is because public policies and charter school leaders have not supported unionization. But unions also bear part of the responsibility for failing to reach out to charter schools and engage their teachers. When teachers at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough, Massachusetts, decided to unionize in summer 2014, they took a surprising step and joined with the largely blue-collar Teamsters union. According to one teacher (who wished to remain anonymous due to ongoing contract negotiations), faculty at the school did not feel comfortable joining a teacher union because “teachers unions have been so anti-charter school in the past that we just didn’t feel like they could represent us and their constituents at the same time” (personal communication, August 1, 2014).

Teacher unions are starting to adapt. In 2008, the UFT joined forces with charter school entrepreneur Steve Barr to co-found the union-operated University Prep Charter High School (formerly Green Dot New York) in the Bronx. The recently elected president of the NEA, Lily Eskelson García, has also taken a promising step of identifying organizing at charter schools as a priority for the union and making clear that charter school teachers would be welcomed (Prothero, 2014). The NEA has formed a partnership with TeachPlus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding access to high-quality teaching, to learn from early-career teachers across the nation—both district and charter—about their hopes for the teaching profession, the role for the union, and how to engage young teachers.

Finally, a third lesson about teacher voice comes from the successes that some charter schools have had developing new channels for teacher input. We define teacher voice as a formal mechanism for teacher input in school decisions around instruction, organization, employment, compensation, and professional growth. Some charter schools provide voice for teachers through a teacher union, and the most effective of these have developed creative new union models that balance flexibility for school leaders with protections for teachers. At Amber Charter School in New York City, for example, the teacher union and school management created a “thin contract,” which is much shorter and simpler than a traditional district-union contract. At Springfield Ball Charter School in Springfield, IL, the union and management struck a compromise on a system of performance-based raises for teachers.

Some charter schools have also demonstrated that a teacher union is not the only mechanism for giving teachers voice. Schools like Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and IDEAL School in Milwaukee, WI, empower teachers by radically rethinking school governance and putting teachers in charge of administrative functions. Other charter schools like City Neighbors Charter School in Baltimore, Maryland, give teachers representation on the governing board. High Tech High network in San Diego includes teachers in staff hiring committees and builds time for teacher-administrator collaboration into the start of each school day.

As a whole, the charter school movement has moved far away from the original idea of teacher-led laboratory schools that would encourage good teachers to stick with the profession, but a subset of charter schools have had great success developing new ways to engage and empower teachers.

We can create a more effective charter school sector—and help build a strong path forward for the teaching profession more broadly—if we learn from these struggles and successes and encourage more charter schools to experiment with pathways for teacher input.


Burian-Fitzgerald, M. (2005). Average teacher salaries and returns to experience in charter schools (Occasional Paper No. 101). New York, NY: National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.

Goldring, R., Gray, L, & Bitterman, A. (2013, August). Characteristics of public and private elementary and secondary school teachers in the United States: Results from the 2011-12 Schools and Staffing Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved online November 17, 2014, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013314.pdf

Goldring, R., Taie, S., & Riddles, M. (2014, September). Teacher attrition and mobility: Results from the 2012-2013 Teacher Follow-up Survey: First look. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

Kahlenberg, R., & Potter, H. (2014). A smarter charter: Finding what works for charter schools and public education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Miron, G., & Urschel, J. L. (2010). Equal or fair? A Study of revenues and expenditures in American charter schools. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center and Education Policy Research Unit, 2010.

Monahan, R. (2014, November 11). Charter schools, better known for ‘churn and burn, now try to keep teachers with mom-friendly policies. The Hechinger Report. Retrieved online November 17, 2014, from http://hechingerreport.org/content/charter-schools-better-known-churn-burn-now-try-keep-teachers-mom-friendly-policies_17925/

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). (2013). A growing movement: America’s largest charter school communities (Eighth annual edition). Washington, DC: Author.

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). (2014, February). Estimated number of public charter schools and students, 2013–2014. Washington, DC: Author.

Prothero, A. (2014, September 5). Calif. Teachers’ union sets sights on charters. Education Week. Retrieved online November 17, 2014, from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/09/05/03charterunions.h34.html

Rebarber, T., & Zgainer, A. C. (2014). Survey of America’s charter schools 2014. The Center for Education Reform. Retrieved online October 2, 2014, from https://www.edreform.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/2014CharterSchoolSurveyFINAL.pdf.

Reichgott Junge, E. (2005, August 7–9). Chartering 2.0 Leadership Summit, Mackinac Island, MI: Proceedings document. Washington, DC: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Ronfeldt, M., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2011, June). How teacher turnover harms student achievement (NBER Working Paper No. 17176). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Shanker, A. (1988, March 31). National Press Club speech. Retrieved from www.reuther.wayne.edu/files/64.43.pdf

Stuit, D. A., & Smith, T. M. (2012). Explaining the gap in charter and traditional public school teacher turnover rates. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 268–279.

Unions consider charter schools of their own. (1996, September 22). New York Times, p. A14.

Whitmire, R. (2014) On the rocketship: How top charter schools are pushing the envelope. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 09, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17890, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 6:49:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Kahlenberg
    The Century Foundation
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD D. KAHLENBERG is a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation.
  • Halley Potter
    The Century Foundation
    E-mail Author
    HALLEY POTTER is a Fellow at The Century Foundation.
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