Charter movement's civil war: Meet the activist who says "unions get way too much blame"

Not all charter school advocates want to gut teacher tenure and unions. Activist Steve Barr has a different view

Published November 19, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown     (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters/Andrew Burton)
Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters/Andrew Burton)

When talking about education reformers or the broader charter school movement, many associate it with anti-union figures like Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown. Education reformers are often seen as corporate and conservative; the kind of people who go to TED talks and worry about "entitlements" and who long ago forgot what it was like to live in the world of the 99 percent. They may opportunistically pay lip service to the civil rights movement or the value of social mobility, but liberals they ain't.

In that context, Steve Barr, a former teamster, television producer, Rock the Vote organizer and education reformer is not supposed to exist. Not because he has no experience as an educator or administrator, but rather because Barr is at once a charter school pioneer and a dedicated supporter of collective bargaining and the teachers unions' right to exist. That makes Barr a bit of an odd-man-out in the education wars; but as has often been the case for the man the New Yorker once nicknamed "the instigator," Barr's found that being a contrarian in the reform debate has its benefits.

Salon recently spoke on the phone with Barr, who this past summer joined a rebooted version of California's Democrats for Education Reform, an organization that has previously been associated with some of teachers unions' most implacable foes. Among other things, we discussed his belief in a pro-union charter model and why he thinks education reformers like Rhee and Brown are focused on the wrong targets. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

You weren't always involved in education, right? How did you end up becoming a reformer?

It was an unlikely path; I’ve never been a teacher or an educator at any level, except just as a bored 15-year-old at Cupertino High School. I’m class of 1977 in California, and that was the last year that California was close to No. 1 in funding for public education. We had built this great educational system here, but in 1978, we had a tax revolt — Prop 13 — that ended up helping to sweep Reagan into [the White House].

From then until I started Green Dot, [California's] gone from [having] some of the best schools in the country to some of the worst. What passed as debate has been the left — which I’m a member of — saying, “Just give more money"... and then people on the right saying, "It’s the teachers union’s fault and we should scrap it or privatize it." I understood that people on the right might feel the way they do, but I couldn’t quite understand why people on the left couldn’t figure out how to move public education into the 21st century.

I watched this politically but also personally. I’d lost a younger brother to drugs and did a lot of soul-searching about how two kids from the same impoverished but loving upbringing could have such different outcomes. I think back to that high school we went to in Cupertino, where I got nurtured and got a lot of attention because I could shoot 3-pointers and I was loud; and where my brother, who was kind of a pudgy little kid and opposite personality-wise, just got no attention. And our lives started separating.

I put a lot of time into that, and around that time I met Reed Hastings and Don Shalvey and some folks that were starting charter schools, and at least it seemed to be an alternative. I was mentoring kids and they were incredibly articulate about what was right and wrong with their schools, but it didn't seem like anybody — especially on the Democratic side — was really putting a lot of thought into what to do about it. When I met Reed and those guys, they were creating a charter school law lifting the cap on charter schools in California, which was at about 100 at the time. As someone who was just devastated by the loss of a brother, and then a parent right after that, and in a bit of a funk, I got a bit of a skip in my step just by hanging out with those guys. Being around entrepreneurs and people who were looking forward at that time and place was just the perfect fit for me.

So we ended up passing this pretty progressive charter school law and, around that time, I was reading in the paper that L.A. hadn't build a high school in over 30 years. The population of the schools tripled over those 30 years, since I graduated from high school. The average ninth grade class was around 1,500 and the average sophomore class was 500, so you had all these schools in Los Angeles just losing 1,000 kids per school per year — what a blight on every other issue, besides education ...

So I decided that, for some weird reason, I was going to create the Great American Urban High School, and spend about six months to a year mostly listening to teachers about the nits/realities of their work. It was usually around certain things about being overwhelmed, obviously, by population, having to do too much parenting, not being a priority in the budgets. But I thought the biggest one was their inability to have any say in what went on in front of them — that the two groups of people in the schools I visited who had the least say were the kids/families and the teachers. The suits did really well, the bureaucracy did really well, the business interests that are attracted to textbooks or construction, they did really well, but [there was] this continual flatlining of results ... and nobody really had any answers.

OK, so you launch Green Dot. How does that go?

I launched Green Dot in 1999 with the idea that I was really going to take on the highest-need areas, where the biggest dropout rates were. I found this community right by LAX ... This was a place where it was mostly new immigrants, who took jobs nobody else wanted around the airport; they made the beds and cooked the food in the hotels around there, did manual labor, etc. Seventy percent of their kids were not graduating from the high school in their neighborhood, Hawthorne High School, so I created a school with that community ...

From day one, I reached out to the Teachers’ Association and said, “Hey, we’re going to reclaim this and we need to work together on this stuff because we've got to start owning reform.” We became a unionized charter school in the beginning ... and we started with 140 kids, six teachers who’d never taught, a principal who was a teacher and didn’t want to be a principal, and a guy who had no educational experience in a city that hadn’t built a high school in over 30 years ...

Midway through that first year, some test scores starting coming out and started getting people’s attention, the L.A. Times in particular, and by the end of the year we had tripled the test scores of the schools in the neighborhood where these kids normally would have gone ... We built [more schools] and then started inwards to try to help the school district and collaborate with them, but started running into the power structure of a big urban school district where there’s just a huge resistance to change. At that point, I went from being a CEO back into my original mode as an organizer, and we started organizing around big, huge, failed schools that we had had many conversations about working with the district on.

And I gather those conversations didn't end in a way you were satisfied with?

The diplomatic way of putting it is to say that the politics weren’t aligned. But as an organizer, when you start mobilizing in those neighborhoods and getting people’s hopes up, you don’t go back to them and say, “Well, the politics aren’t aligned.” You start doing politics a little harsher. So we became more of a political force around that time, to the point where, at one point, a group of teachers at the biggest dropout factory in Los Angeles, Locke High School, reached out to me and we ended up [doing a] hostile takeover of the school, acting on a little-known provision of No Child Left Behind [that allows] the majority of tenured teachers to vote to "liberate" a continually failing school.

What happened as a result?

It put shockwaves through the system. It wasn’t just a few charter schools; it was a whole high school, liberated. There were about 10 other schools that contacted me and together we could have taken over the school district in a couple of weeks, if I had known what I was doing, but a little bit like the dog who caught the first car, we didn’t know what the hell to do with the first one ...

A few years later, Locke High School, despite the fact that it takes in less than the bottom 1 percent of high-school-prepared kids in the state of California, graduated 75 percent of the kids with a higher average of A through G college preparatory curriculum than the state average. That’s a huge lift in that area and I think it’s had an influence ... on Los Angeles. Now the mayor’s schools and the LAUSD schools, which was the original idea, are emulating a lot of the things we did at those first few schools ... You’re seeing a transformation in Los Angeles where, rather than what Mayor Bloomberg did, which was top-down, [change] has percolated purely from the grass roots up. That, I think, has a good chance of being sustained over a long period of time.

Lately, though, you've been focusing less on building schools, right?

After building 15 schools, Green Dot is up to 23 schools and serves over 11,000 kids — including one school in the South Bronx called The Future Is Now Prep School. I could keep building schools into oblivion, or I could figure out how to take some of the things we learned from that experience, like getting all the adults to pull ... in a progressive way, and believing in collective bargaining as an involved new unionism [and figure out] how do we scale that. That has probably more traction and a longer view than just creating one charter school after another. That’s how I ended up focusing 100 percent on the politics, instead of focusing on the politics while I’m trying to turn around schools at the same time.

So to back up for a second: You're someone who has worked to promote charter schools but who is also in favor of unions and collective bargaining. At least as far as the most surface-level version of the education reform debate goes, you're kind of a unicorn. How did you end up occupying this middle ground between the two camps?

When you come from Democratic politics, the first thing you’re going to realize is that unions aren’t going anywhere. Most people involved in Democratic politics believe immensely and wholeheartedly in collective bargaining — I do. From my perspective, as somebody starting schools, I noticed that it was a competitive advantage to those who thought, “We don’t need a union because we take care of our employees,” and that that was kind of farcical. Your product is the teachers, and it’s akin to, “Hey, I value you, but can you go sit at the kids’ table? We’ll take care of you.” You want people to feel ownership.

When some people in the charter movement looked at me at first they just thought I was an imbecile. Why would you start working with the unions right away? People in the union movements were skeptical a bit, but I had relationships with a lot of the California Teachers Association folks and they were very receptive, not just because they were the nicest people and thought charter schools are great, but because it was a way of spreading collective bargaining through the charter movement. We created a different kind of contract, a post-Vergara contract, before anyone had heard of the Vergara style ...

When I got pushback from my tribe ... I would say, “You’re not going to change a 100 percent unionized industry with non-unionized labor.” You’ll get there; they’re getting 5 or 6 percent nationally, and that’s cute, but I’m pretty restless. There’s a lot of kids who need the same value we have in our really good schools. They need work conditions improving, good professional development, high expectations, smaller schools — there’s a big need for us out there.

It doesn't seem, though, that the route you've taken is discussed much in the mainstream education debates. I hate to go "both sides," but it does often feel like there's a kind of rigidity coming from both the education reformers who are critical of unions, and the unions who are critical of reformers.

The back-and-forth is really slowing down progress.

For unions, I go back to my friends in the unions and say, “The vast majority of your members don’t quite get why they’re a part of this membership, except as an emergency fund in case there’s big layoffs.” They don’t like the fact that their union’s not leading on reform and that they’re always confronting it. I read somewhere that in the state of California ... 42 percent of teachers are Republicans. They’re not one-size-fits-all. And the profession has changed a lot; it’s not like it was when a lot of these contracts were written, when you'd have one job for 30 years. Most people in this generation will change jobs seven or eight times, so you’ve got to evolve your membership and your reaction to systems.

The other part of the problem that teachers unions have is that they’re kind of like hockey fights: The instigator never gets the whistle, it’s always the one who reacts. Unions get way too much blame ... for this problem, and I think the tenure argument speaks to that.

How so?

There’s a lot of shitty teachers out there, but the question we should ask is, Who the hell is hiring them, how are we training them, and why is it the teachers unions’ fault? Those are great questions, and the one I’m focusing on is how we train teachers, and whether the current way of training teachers is a deterrent. In California, there’s less than 20,000 teaching candidates currently ... whereas just seven years ago there were over 100,000. Nobody’s going into teaching. I think the thought is in Dana Goldstein's book, that the [education reform] wars have just alienated so many people, or people have woken up to the fact that it’s a sucker’s bet; it’s a tough job with not a lot of support ... It’s just that big, broken issue there [and] we should be focusing on a lot more than tenure.

I want to talk a bit more about where you think unions aren't doing as great a job as they could be when it comes to listening to their rank-and-file. Are there some issues in particular that you'd hear teachers mention again and again?

There are some basic things. In New York, for example, we pay 22 percent more on the pay scale than other public schools. We don’t do it with philanthropy; we just do it with efficiency. Twenty-two percent more to a teacher in New York is close to about $20,000 more, so that gets a lot of people’s attention.

More important than that is the ability to be involved in the decision-making, and I think that cuts to the bone for a lot of teachers ... Teachers will tell you stories: “Why are we doing this?” and the answer is, “Oh, it came from downtown” ... This basic stuff that would just drive anybody crazy, anybody that uses their head and motivates kids, to not be able to pick and use their own tools or to be involved in it somehow.

Again, the idea that a charter school is not only unionized but that one of its chief goals — one of the main reasons it exists — is to give teachers more money and autonomy, that's not something you hear much in the popular debate. Are people surprised when they hear you framing it this way?

Oh, god, yeah!

I had this ongoing conversation/debate with Roy Romer, the former governor [of Colorado] who was our superintendent, and ... we were having a long discussions about creating autonomous schools together and us helping the district ... But he just couldn't ... wrap his hands around [the idea of giving schools and teachers so much autonomy]. But as an organizer, it just makes total sense; you have to empower people for them to lead. They can't be handled or bullshitted. And so, to me, it just seemed like such a natural thing. Now ... modern businesspeople in America will tell you that having decisions made closest to a client is the best way to run a business; so I'm saying there's the overlap.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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