Green Dot

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 15 2008 10:18 AM

Green Dot

The divide between the teachers unions and the charter-school crowd often seems unbridgeable. At an education-reform forum in Denver last month, on the eve of the Democratic Convention, Cory Booker , the mayor of Newark and a member of the pro-charter Education Equality Project , spoke out against the unions, noting how "vicious" they can be:

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Ten years ago, when I started talking about school choice, I was tarred and feathered. ... I literally was brought into a room by a [teachers] union [representative] ... and threatened that I would never win in office if I kept talking about school choice, if I kept talking about charter schools."
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When collaborations—or even kind words—between the two sides do come along these days, they can seem all the more startling. Take the new Green Dot school in the Bronx.

Green Dot Public Schools is a charter-management organization that runs 12 charter high schools in Los Angeles. It's different from other successful charter groups, like KIPP , Achievement First , and Uncommon Schools , in three important (and challenging) ways: Green Dot runs high schools instead of middle schools. The group specializes in "transformations" of existing failing public schools instead of starting their own from scratch. And their schools work with unionized teachers, unlike most charter schools.

Two weeks ago, Green Dot opened its first school outside of L.A., a charter in the South Bronx. What's unusual about the school is that it is run in a partnership with the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teachers union. The ceremony marking the school's debut was a lion-lying-down-with-the-lamb moment: Joel Klein, New York's school superintendent, stood next to his frequent adversary, Randi Weingarten, the president of the UFT, as they cut the ribbon.

It's hard to know if the new school will be the beginning of a trend toward unionized charters—for now, there doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm for this kind of arrangement on the part of any charter provider but Green Dot. But at the very least it's a model for a new type of relationship between old enemies. And if the reform folks really want to scale up their no-excuses model to a point where it's big enough to change things for a significant number of kids across the country, it couldn't hurt to have the unions on board.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.