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Published in Print: April 14, 2004, as Calif. Union to Organize In Charters

Calif. Union to Organize In Charters

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With major financial backing from the National Education Association, California’s largest teachers’ union has launched an initiative to organize employees in hundreds of charter schools in the state.

The push by the California Teachers Association adds a fresh twist to the complicated and often contentious relationship between the nation’s growing network of charter schools and its politically powerful teachers’ unions. Although still in its infancy, the CTA effort appears to signal a new approach toward the independently run public schools by a state labor organization that remains among the charter movement’s strongest critics.

For its part, the 2.7 million-member NEA is backing the California effort in the hope that it will yield lessons for union organizers elsewhere. NEA leaders also argue that unionized teachers can play a watchdog role in charter schooling by pushing for greater public accountability, particularly in schools run by for-profit companies.

"If there are lessons to be learned on what works and doesn’t work in this effort, we want to share that with other affiliates," said NEA spokesman Michael Pons.

The reception to the state union’s organizing effort has been mixed in California’s more than 470 charter schools. Charter school experts and union officials estimate that employees in about a third of the Golden State’s charter schools are already represented by unions. Many of those schools—but not all—were district-run schools that converted to charter status.

Given the diverse views, the state’s leading charter school association says it is not launching a counteroffensive to the organizing push, despite what its leaders view as questionable tactics by the CTA to persuade charter teachers that they need a union.

"They’re spreading misinformation about what charter schools are," said Caprice Young, the president and chief operating officer of the Sacramento-based California Charter Schools Association, a membership group that represents about 70 percent of the state’s charter schools. "But I don’t think that just because they’ve declared war against us, that we need to declare war against them."

But Tom Conry, a member of the CTA’s board of directors who heads its charter school working group, denied any such hostility.

"Because of the growing number of charters, there is a need to have this plan together to reach out to them," said Mr. Conry, who also sits on the state board of education’s Advisory Commission on Charter Schools. "What we’ve done is stated we are going to organize the workers in charter schools for the purpose of protecting their rights, and that’s it."

Bargaining for All

Although Arizona still has more charter schools than any other state, California now has the highest enrollment, with some 170,000 students in charter schools.

Some California charter leaders are upbeat about the prospect for productive partnerships with unions, pointing to some places where such relationships have already been forged. Others are deeply suspicious of the 335,000-member CTA’s organizing effort, afraid it will bring to charter schools a rules-oriented mentality that they left regular public schools to escape.

To Dennis Snyder, who was a public school teacher and union member for 30 years before starting the 1,000-student Escondido Charter High School in San Diego County, the CTA’s organizing effort is "about power, and getting more money into their coffers so they have more money to influence legislation."

"I think they should stay out of other people’s houses," he said.

But Mark Kushner, the founder of a nonunionized charter school network based in San Francisco, said he sees potential in the union’s growing interest in charter schools.

"The charter movement as a whole is interested in improving all public schools," said Mr. Kushner, the chief executive officer of Leadership Public Schools and the chairman of the state school board’s charter advisory commission. "To the extent that we’re going to do that, we need to involve school districts, school boards, and unions."

Last October, the CTA promoted its organizing effort in a package of articles in its California Educator magazine. One, titled "Without Union Protection, Teachers Are Vulnerable," identified as a leading goal "securing collective bargaining rights for all charter school teachers either by incorporating them into existing bargaining units or creating new bargaining units for them."

Other objectives cited were to "deal with the privatization issues raised by charter schools" and to develop "programs for charter school teachers in the areas of advocacy training, communications, budget analysis, leadership, and professional development."

The CTA says it will share the cost of the project with the NEA for the first three years. Mr. Pons said the national union’s board of directors had approved a matching, one-year grant of $250,000 last October, but said funding for additional years had yet to be awarded.

"The board said we want to evaluate how this is going before we commit additional resources," he said.

Mr. Pons said no other state affiliates had sought grants specifically targeted to charter schools.

So far, the CTA has hired two organizers—one based in the Los Angeles area and the other near Sacramento—and plans to bring two more on board. To date, no charter schools have become unionized as a result of the project, Mr. Conry said.

"We are surveying and having focus groups with charter school teachers to better understand their needs and what it is that CTA can do for them," he said.

Some charter school leaders have been eyeing those initial efforts warily.

"There have been cases where they’ve paid teachers over $100 a day to take part in a focus group, and they’re not really a focus group," Ms. Young said. Instead, she said, those running the focus groups were "basically trying to convince [charter school teachers] that they are unhappy."

Mr. Conry declined to comment on the substance of the focus groups, saying that CTA leaders would be receiving the findings from them shortly.

Meanwhile, the winter issue of a quarterly newsletter by the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center carried an article about the organizing initiative that offered charter operators a list of "tips to maintain a satisfied staff."

"For those who don’t have collection bargaining agreements in place, this may help to thwart some of those efforts that are likely to come from CTA," said Gary Borden, a lawyer who works closely with the nonprofit development center and wrote the article.

Making It Work

Ms. Young of the state charter school association said "the best defense against hostile unionization is to have people who are happy working in the schools."

"High- quality charter schools have faculty that are integrally involved in the leadership of the school site," she added, "therefore, they’re generally pretty happy."

As the founding principal of Sacramento’s first charter school, Dennis Mah has seen his relationship with the CTA affiliate that represents his teachers evolve from open warfare to one he now describes as "cozy-cozy."

After the school converted to charter status in 1994, "I was ‘grieved’ for every single article in the contract," he recalled, referring to the union’s process of filing complaints when members believe the contract has been violated.

But over time, Mr. Mah said, he and union leaders called a truce, and together won waivers of provisions of the districtwide teachers’ contract that have helped the Bowling Green Charter School pursue its own path. Bowling Green’s employees are considered district employees, as is typical of California charter schools that are "affiliated" with their districts, rather than fully independent.

"We made things work here," Mr. Mah said during an interview in the school library.

Still, he thinks the 950-student elementary school could be "Olympic caliber" if it were free of what he called the "rules based" teachers’ contract. For example, he would love to avoid having to accept teachers who can transfer in from other schools simply because of union-bargained seniority rights.

"If I were to start another charter school right now, I’d do it independent," he said, "because the contract is really restrictive."

While unionized start- up charter schools are rare, the exceptions include the three small high schools operated by Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit organization in the Los Angeles area.

The schools’ teachers have organized into a single bargaining unit, and last May reached a contract that both the CTA and the Inglewood, Calif.-based Green Dot now see as a model.

Green Dot CEO Steve Barr, a co-founder of the voter-registration organization Rock the Vote, said his long background in Democratic politics made him keenly aware of the power of the teachers’ unions when he opened his first high school four years ago.

During the year it took to hammer out the contract, Mr. Barr said, CTA negotiators were "really open-minded." Under the contract, teachers are responsible for shaping their own curriculum and do not receive tenure. But Mr. Barr says they earn more money in their first five years than those in nearby school districts.

"As somebody who was warned by everybody that the unions are evil, they’re the bogeyman, in actuality their openness to reform is very refreshing," he said.

Other charter leaders are interested in Green Dot’s contract, but have yet to follow its example. Among them are Judy I. Burton, the president of Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that hopes to open 20 new charter schools in the city over the next five years. She said she plans to open the first school next fall—with nonunionized teachers.

"It’s not a closed-door issue," said Ms. Burton, a longtime administrator in the Los Angeles public schools. "But I know that our organization and others I talk to are not ready to do that."

Mr. Kushner, who said he was "exploring" the issue of unionization in his network’s schools, said he hoped that leaders of charter schools and unions would figure out how to produce "a win-win for all the constituencies."

"If we can find a way to enable great teachers to be in charter schools and to have the union find a way to enable the flexibility that charter schools are all about," he said, "I think that’s great."

Vol. 23, Issue 31, Pages 1,23

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