Bill Would Order Collective Bargaining in Calif. Charters

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Touted as bastions of relief from red tape, charter schools in California would have to abide by locally negotiated labor contracts under a measure that could pit teachers' unions against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and his top education adviser.

Teachers and other charter school employees would automatically be represented by unions' local collective-bargaining units under a bill advancing through the legislature's lower house.

At a Glance: California
  • Population: 33.8 million
  • Governor: Gray Davis (D)
  • State Superintendent: Delaine Eastin
  • Number of K-12 students: 5.8 million
  • Number of K-12 schools: 8,331
  • Fiscal 1999 K-12 budget: $40.1 million

Currently, administrators of the 190 charter schools open or approved in California can negotiate their own labor contracts or choose to allow staff members to be represented by local collective-bargaining units. About half the state's charter schools, which are independently run public schools, have opted for collective bargaining.

"There's no teacher outcry for this," said Sue Bragato, the executive director of the California Network of Educational Charters. "It's a power struggle. If we weren't growing and successful, they wouldn't give us the time of day."

The collective-bargaining bill is backed by the California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, and the California Federation of Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate.

The CTA supports expanded public school choice and charters, CTA President Lois Tinson said in a written statement. She added: "However, we also want to make sure that all our teachers enjoy the same rights and benefits."

Dilemma Ahead

Nationally, nine of the 34 states with charter school laws require collective bargaining. And in California, debates over collective bargaining and charter schools are nothing new.

In 1992, the legislature produced two charter school bills. One, sponsored by then-Sen. Gary K. Hart, a Democrat, made collective bargaining optional. Mr. Hart is now Gov. Davis' secretary of education.

A second bill, sponsored by former Democratic Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, mandated collective bargaining. Ms. Eastin is now the elected, nonpartisan state schools chief.

Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican and Mr. Davis' predecessor, signed Mr. Hart's version of the charter legislation largely because it left out the collective-bargaining requirement.

Last week, a spokeswoman for Mr. Hart said that it was too early for him to comment on the new bill. Still, the charter school measure could put Gov. Davis--a charter school proponent--in an awkward position.

"It pits his strong supporters in the teachers' unions against his education secretary," said Gerald C. Hayward, a co-director of Political Analysis for California Education, a think tank at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

On the other hand, the governor may try to avoid a showdown.

"One thing he could do is send out serious signals, and the bill never gets to him," Mr. Hayward said. "Sometimes, legislators take one for the governor."

Opponents of the measure have planned a May 24 rally at the Capitol in Sacramento.

Meanwhile, Peggy Bryan, the principal of the 435-student Sherman Oaks Elementary School in San Jose, is watching the developments. Her teachers want to convert their school into a charter school beginning next fall. Forced collective bargaining, she said, "might end our efforts."

While the bill would let charter schools waive contract details with the approval of union and district officials, Ms. Bryan said that was not enough flexibility: "It's what we are trying to work away from ... people telling us what to do."

Exaggerated Opposition?

Democratic Assemblywoman Carole Migden, the sponsor of the bill, could not be reached for comment last week. But in a written statement, she rejected predictions that charter schools would have to close if they were subject to collective-bargaining agreements.

"At least 50 percent of the charter schools that are in place right now have collective bargaining," she said. "The opposition is exaggerating and using scare tactics."

But talks are under way to amend Ms. Migden's bill to give charter school employees flexibility in such agreements. Her bill has passed two committees. Final action is pending in a third.

"As many charter school teachers say, this is a way to strangle the charter school movement," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy group in Washington. "What they are going after is essentially what makes charters different."

EA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons countered that some see charter schools as a way to eliminate collective bargaining altogether. "We believe that collective bargaining is a healthy process to resolve conflict and to advance a common agenda to help kids," she added.

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Page 14

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Bill Would Order Collective Bargaining in Calif. Charters
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