One reason why San Antonio is home to a growing number of public charter schools that parents are choosing as an alternative to traditional public schools can be explained with three words: the teachers union.

Legally, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel is not a union. It does not have collective bargaining rights and cannot strike, but it conducts itself and is accorded the status of a de facto union by the district and school board.

No other entity within the structure of the San Antonio Independent School District, the inner city’s largest district with more than 50,000 students, is as resistant to change as the teachers union. That has become evident once again after the school board and Superintendent Pedro Martinez devised an innovative turnaround plan for P.F. Stewart Elementary, a failing Eastside campus, that includes partnering with the East Coast public charter Democracy Prep.

The district has 90 campuses, and six of them have been rated as failing schools for at least four years. This is not the first turnaround plan for the troubled Stewart campus. I have no idea if the SAISD-Democracy Prep partnership will work, but Martinez was hired as a change agent, and that is exactly what he has proven to be. Not all his proposals will succeed, inevitably, but he deserves strong support for all his forceful reform efforts, even if proposed changes require the teachers union to accept their share of the responsibility for failing schools and give Martinez room to experiment and try something different.

Instead the teachers union and its state affiliate, the Texas State Teacher’s Association, filed a formal complaint last week opposing the partnership and turnaround plan.

The proposed plan calls for converting Stewart to an in-district charter with the right to choose the school’s teachers, who will be employed by Democracy Prep. The school’s current teachers are welcome to apply to stay at the campus, and surely some of them will be selected. Those who are not hired will be given posts elsewhere in the district. No teacher will lose his or her job. In other words, Martinez has accommodated the union at every step in his plan.

That is not good enough for the union. Whoever gets those jobs at Stewart will not be under the control of the teachers union. Facing a loss of power, union President Shelley Potter would rather oppose the proposed turnaround plan perpetuate the status quo.

The status quo at Stewart Elementary is unacceptable. It should be noted that the teachers union has not offered an alternative turnaround plan and has never stepped forward to propose its own innovative solutions to address the district’s failing schools. Yet it disingenuously states in its complaint that the district’s turnaround plan would somehow have a “detrimental effect” on all the district’s students.

If you want to identify “detrimental effect,” look at the high school graduation and college going rates for the district over the last 25 years.

Reform is not in the teachers union vocabulary. Ridding the district’s classrooms of bad teachers is a non-starter with the union. Let me note here that I don’t believe SAISD is beset with bad teachers. I have visited dozens of the district’s 90 campuses, and many such visits, including my recent visit to Carroll Early Education Center on the Eastside, left me inspired.

I put good teachers and school administrators on the same pedestal that others reserve for pro athletes and movie stars. They are my heroes. But a few bad teachers can do a lot of damage. I’ve spoken with too many good teachers who left the profession, discouraged by the seeming permanence of bad teachers, the rigidity of the curriculum, and low pay for the emotionally taxing work and the speed at which public school critics blame the teachers for unsatisfactory outcomes.

Public charters do not have the answer, either. Teacher turnover is way too high, even at the best public charter schools. Too many good teachers who have left charters tell me they burned out on the six-day weeks, long hours, and low pay.

“The district schools can’t get rid of teachers, and the charters can’t keep them,” one local education leader once told me, and he wasn’t joking. It’s a case of two extremes.

The solution, of course, is to turn around San Antonio’s inner city public schools so the academic outcomes meet the expectations of all families living in the district. The complaint filed by the teachers union serves as a case study of why so many families lack confidence in that happening. Great schools start with great teachers and a great principal. There is no room for underperforming teachers in that calculus, or functionaries who give them political protection.

Martinez is a genuine change agent backed by the most unified and professional school board in the district’s history. The results he is demonstrating in less than three years on the job are real and they are measurable.

Upon his arrival in May 2015 Martinez set ambitious new academic goals for San Antonio’s largest inner-city school district, which mostly serves socioeconomically challenged minority families. Here is a link to his district improvement plan adopted by the school board. Since then, graduation rates are up, as are the number of college-bound graduates. The district continues to innovate with the establishment of new choice schools and magnets.

The union’s complaint stands in the way of the district’s intent to improve public education outcomes in San Antonio. The union could better serve its membership by undertaking its own internal reforms aimed at making sure all of its good teachers are surrounded only by other good teachers.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.