In Florida big business is teaming up with a teachers' union to run charter schools. Jeremy Sutcliffe asks whether this enterprise is likely to travel
AT first glance, the local schools debate in Dade County, Florida - a mainly urban conurbation of 2.5 million people, which includes Miami - holds little interest for the hard-pressed teachers of Britain.
But an unlikely partnership between big business and the powerful local teachers' union could help to re-shape publicly-funded education in Florida with repercussions not just for the US but, potentially, this country too.
The instigator of this "odd couple" relationship is the 20,000-strong United Teachers of Dade (UTD), which represents virtually all public-sector teachers, classroom assistants and support staff in the county.
The union has just secured approval to run up to 20 "charter" schools - publicly-funded schools which will operate independently under contract from the school district (the local education authority). Holders of a charter are given autonomy in exchange for an agreement to meet performance targets laid down in the charter.
At a time when Tony Blair's Government has plans to establish a new breed of "contract schools", allowing companies or voluntary-sector sponsors to take over the management of weak or failing schools for a fixed period, America's flourishing charter schools - on which they are modelled - are coming under close scrutiny in the UK.
Plans to open six city academies in London and other major English cities will also draw from the experience of charter schools.
The idea of a teachers' union running such schools may not be quite what Mr Blair has in mind, but the Dade teachers have drawn support from some surpising quarters. Not only have they won approval from the local politicians on the school board (local education committee), but also from the state governor, Jeb Bush.
As one of America's leading proponents of charter schools, he has promoted a series of educational initiatives throughout Florida, designed to foster their growth. Even more surprisingly, the union has signed up two for-profit companies to manage their schools for them, including Edison, the largest private player in America's charter schools market - and with a track record of hostility to the unions.
The arrangement works like this. As holders of the charter, the union will have majority membership of the schools' governance board and will take ultimate responsibility for the curriculum and for staff pay and conditions. It promises to "protect the interests of our members and the children in our charge".
The companies, however, will be responsible for the day-to-day running of the schools and will implement, under an agreement with the union, their own academic programmes and management structures. Teachers will be responsible to the management companies.
In essence, the union will take a back-seat role, provided the management fulfils its contract. Edison has engaged with its new partner to build seven elementary schools, two middle and one high school over the next three years. The schools are urgently needed. The region - which has seen successive waves of immigration from Cuba and Latin America - is one of the fastest-growing regions in the US.
Another company, Chancellor Academies, is to take advantage of a new Florida law, which allows existing public (state) schools to convert to charter schools where there is a demand from parents. Under its deal with the union, Chancellor plans to convert 10 charter schools by 2004.
This union-business partnership is the brainchild of Pat Tornillo, the UTD's reform-minded president, who would like to see all Florida's public schools convert to charters.
A critic of America's school boards, which he says are too bureaucratic, he believes charter schools offer greater choice for parents and greater autonomy for teachers.
"If my plan were to work, why would you need a school board?" he asks. "You could restructure a district so that all schools became charters. Each one would have its own governing board made up of parents and teachers and some community leaders and business people, and parents would be free to send their children to whatever school they wanted."
For British teachers and administrators, who have lived through a decade of local management and opting out, these arguments sound familiar, but nevertheless seem strange coming from the mouth of a trade union boss.
It's as though Doug McAvoy, the National Union of Teachers' general secretary, suddenly came out in favour of local education authorities being abolished and announced that his union was going into business with Nord Anglia, the private company running some education services in Hackney, east London.
But what matters to Tornillo are the political realities. In Florida, and most of America, school devolution is taking place much later than in Britain. Instead of local management and grant-maintained schools, however, the preferred mechanism is charter schools.
These are based on a fixed-term contract - typically three years. Crucially, holders of charters can bring in private, profit-seeking companies to manage their schools and help them achieve their goals.
The involvement of "for-profit" companies in this way remains highly contentious. But while national teachers' leaders and traditional Democrats are generally opposed to charter schools - pointing out that as yet there is no clear evidence that they can deliver in terms of higher academic standards - there is no doubt that they are popular with parents, and often teachers too.
It is perhaps for this reason that New Democrats - America's answer to New Labour - are now getting behind charter schools as a way of revitalising and modernising the country's public school system.
They see them as a means of raising standards and encouraging greater innovation, but also as the key to preserving public schools from the threat of education vouchers, the holy grail of the Republican Right.
In Florida, under a controversial scheme introduced by Governor Bush, parents with students at any school which fails to reach educational targets over two in any four years will be offered vouchers, equivalent to the cost of a public education, to attend private school. It is that imminent threat which convinced the union it should throw in its lot with Edison and Chancellor, offering parents choice within the public system.
Not everyone believes the union's experiment will work. Dr Michael Krop, a Miami dentist, charter-supporting Democrat and member of Dade County school board, says: "If I were to open up a charter school I would hire the youngest and brightest teachers and pay them more.
"The union is not going to succeed because there is a conflict of interest there. But it's a noble experiment."
The betting among union leaders in Washington is that what works in Miami, based on good relationships locally and on Pat Tornillo's personal creed, will not work elsewhere.
Perhaps more significant is the fact that for-profit companies like Edison are prepared to make surprising alliances to help them expand their business. So far, neither Edison nor Chancellor has made a profit.
Alan Olkes, co-founder of Chancellor Academies and a former superintendent for Dade County school district, believes only the big companies will survive and ultimately make money.
"The only way you are going to make money out of this is to grow. If you open a hamburger stall you are not going to make much money. But if you run 900 then you are on your way to becoming McDonald's," he says.
If companies like Edison succeed in Florida and elsewhere, it may be just a matter of time before they come knocking at the door of Britain's school system. The present Government has made plain it is ready to embrace the private sector as partners in running state schools.
At the moment it's a big "if". But if it does happen, we can thank the teachers of Dade County, Florida, for helping it on its way.
ALL ABOUT CHARTERS
* Charter schools are publicly-funded schools which operate free from many of the restrictions which apply to traditional public (state) schools. Those which fail to improve academic results and meet other targets are unlikely to have their charter renewed.
* The first charter schools opened in Minnesota in 1992. Latest unofficial figures put the number at 2,045 across 39 states.
* By the summer of 1999, 59 charter schools had been closed.
* Most charter schools are small elementaries with an average of 137 pupils.
* White students made up 48 per cent of their enrolment in 1998, compared with 59 per cent in the rest of the public school sector.
* Slightly more children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals are enrolled in charter schools than in other public schools.
* Edison Schools, founded in 1992, is the largest private manager of public schools. More than 57,000 students currently attend Edison schools.
* In his first budget, President George W Bush announced plans to double federal spending on charter schools.