More Charter School Teachers See Unions as an Option

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García delivers her keynote address to the 2015 NEA Representative Assembly. At this years' convention, the NEA will vote on a policy statement about charter schools and unions.
National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García delivers her keynote address to the 2015 NEA Representative Assembly. At this years' convention, the NEA will vote on a policy statement about charter schools and unions.
—Scott Iskowitz/NEA

Organizing slow, uncertain in the sector's schools

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Interest in forming teachers’ unions is bubbling up at charter schools in big cities, and the national unions are pitching in to help—but that doesn’t mean they’ve shed their wariness about the charter movement as a whole.

The organizing landscape is still relatively small and diffuse, but union advocates say even more charter teachers are starting to view organizing as an option.

“There’s a real appetite” for this work, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “What you’re seeing is charters where people have decided to make these schools their homes, and they want a voice.”

A Washington charter school in June became the first in that city to successfully organize a union. Another New Orleans charter school organized in May, bringing that city’s number of union-organized charter schools to five. As of this spring, Cleveland now has five organized charter schools as well.

Of the 6,900 charter schools nationally, only about 1 in 10 have unions. That percentage has stayed steady in recent years even while charter enrollment has risen. While largely symbolic for now, the recent big-city union victories could energize similar campaigns in other nearby charter schools, experts say. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Sacramento have also seen upticks in organizing efforts among charter school teachers.

On July 4, the National Education Association will hold a vote at its annual convening on a new policy statement that denounces privately managed charter schools as a “failed and damaging experiment,” but also says “state affiliates that seek to organize charter schools, whether such schools are privately managed schools or public charter schools, may continue to seek NEA’s assistance in those organizing efforts.”

It’s a sharper denunciation of charters than the union held previously and a reiteration of support for charter unions. The policy, many say, is likely to pass.

Update: The NEA's policy denouncing privately managed charter schools, but supporting affiliates who decide to organize charters, did pass. Read more.

“Our goal is to promote voice for educators,” said Secky Fascione, the director of local union organizing for the NEA. “It makes sense we would try to promote that voice for educators in all learning environments.”

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But charter school advocates say unionization can cause schools to lose flexibility in how they do scheduling, professional development, teacher evaluations, pay, and dismissals—all of which help them serve students.

“When you take away that flexibility, they’re really not a charter—they’re another unionized district school that has to pay everyone that has been there three years and has a master’s degree the same way whether they’re performing well or not,” said Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The Basic Trade-Off

While funded with public dollars, charter schools have more autonomy than traditional public schools. Many require teachers to work longer hours than most union contracts allow. And teachers there generally are at-will employees, meaning they can be dismissed for any cause.

The trade-off, charter advocates say, is that the schools can make budget and staffing choices that they believe are best for their students, free from the constraints of a district bureaucracy. And many charters pride themselves on having a strong school culture, which is ideally a product of the leadership and staff working together closely with a common vision.

But in some of those charter schools, the teachers end up feeling disenfranchised anyway.

Christian Herr, a science teacher who helped lead the recent organizing effort at Chavez Prep Middle School, part of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School network in Washington, explained that his school had been suffering from high teacher and administrator turnover. Herr had worked under four principals in four years. The teachers there were looking for some policies to count on regardless of who was in charge—and to have a say in creating them.

When he began organizing, some of the teachers at his school didn’t even know they could unionize.

“What we heard a lot from teachers was we thought the whole thing with charter schools is we’re not allowed to form unions,” he said. “That was eye-opening for me.”

Ultimately, teachers at Chavez are looking for a contract that includes a salary scale built with teacher input and due process for teachers who are struggling, Herr said.

“We think a contract where teachers and staff are better able to advocate for themselves and really meaningfully sit at the table will create conditions and an environment where teachers are more comfortable sticking around and building a long-term career here,” he added.

What charter teachers are fighting for differs from place to place. Sometimes, the contracts end up looking like those at traditional public schools and sometimes they are unique to an individual charter, said Nathan Barrett, the associate director and senior research fellow at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, a research organization at Tulane University that studies post-Katrina schools.

“Oftentimes, teachers just want more transparency—they want to know what’s going on in a school,” he said.

In some cases, the leadership comes to the table willingly and the organizing process goes smoothly. But often, the discussions turn acrimonious—threats are made, lawyers are hired, the parties entrench.

And that can have consequences whether or not the union comes to fruition.

“Once you set up this labor-management adversarial relationship, it can be very hard to preserve that management-teacher bond that’s good for the school and students,” said Andrew Broy, the head of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

‘People Come to Us’

Many agree that interest in charter organizing has swelled recently, but different camps have different ideas about who’s leading the charge.

According to Ziebarth, “the unions have been trying to organize charters for a very long time. … It’s a significant priority for the AFT, and they’ve focused on a handful of urban areas to push on this.”

But Weingarten of the AFT said the union never pushes organizing, because a tried-and-failed attempt can potentially put teachers’ jobs in jeopardy. “We don’t recruit teachers,” she said. “People come to us.”

The AFT represents 234 of the nation’s charter schools. The NEA did not provide numbers but has long represented the majority of unionized charters. (Some charter unions are affiliated with both organizations.)

In the District of Columbia, Herr said he reached out to the AFT after efforts to negotiate with school leadership through committees and petitions had fallen flat. The AFT “advised and supported us but they never pushed anything on us,” he said.

Both the national organizations and local affiliates have people on staff assigned to help organize charter school teachers. After unsuccessfully trying to unionize at the charter school where he taught, Nathan Walker was hired by AFT Michigan in 2009 to help with that work.

Pushback from charter management companies has been particularly severe in that state. Last year, the National Labor Relations board accused a Detroit charter management company of pulling out of a school to scuttle staff efforts to unionize, the Detroit Metro Times, an alternative weekly, reported, only to then re-form as a new company.

“In general, most folks are very much interested in participating in an organization at their workplace that is helping collectively solve problems to better the learning and working environment,” Walker said. “When the staff starts to get divided, my experience is it’s usually the result of the employer intentionally introducing conflict and diversion tactics.”

Only a handful of Detroit’s charters are organized.

Chicago—a labor organizing stronghold, broadly speaking—has seen quite a few successful organizing efforts and is, many say, the epicenter of charter-organizing activity. About a quarter of the 130 charter schools there are unionized, and teachers at the 18-school Noble charter network—the largest network in the city—recently announced their intention to form a union as well.

“More teachers are seeing this as a realistic option—something they can do and win,” said Chris Baehrend, the president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which represents teachers at the unionized charters and is an AFT affiliate.

Chicago ACTS members recently voted to merge with the 32,000-member Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU is expected to approve that measure this fall, which would mean charter teachers will make up about 4 percent of the larger AFT affiliate’s membership.

“Together we can bring more attention and put more pressure on our bosses to do the right thing,” said Baehrend.

But Broy, of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, argued that this is a political play to undermine charters.

“There are an increasing number of schools caught up in labor negotiations that are taking a lot of time and energy away from classrooms and what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Charter school teachers are paid less on average than their district counterparts nationally (though they are also on average less experienced). And yet the CTU has consistently opposed giving charter schools equitable funds, said Broy. “It’s evidence they’re playing both sides in this case,” he said.

Growth Strategy?

Teachers’ unions have good reason to want to add more members these days. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering hearing the Janus v. AFSCME case, out of Illinois, which could potentially make it illegal for the unions to charge fees to nonmembers. That could lead to a drop in both revenue and membership.

But experts say organizing charter schools is not really a viable tactic for boosting numbers.

“Candidly, numerically, it doesn’t add up to a membership growth strategy,” said Fascione.

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Organizing efforts can easily crumble at individual schools because of higher teacher turnover and fear of retaliation. “If you’re a teacher working in these schools, you have to think, is it worth the effort for me to organize if I know I’m only going be here another two to three years?” said Barrett.

And contracts need to be negotiated separately for each individual charter school, which can drain resources from the larger unions supporting these efforts.

“It’s expensive to organize in charters. There are lots of different employers, lots of different contracts,” said Baehrend of Chicago ACTS. “I don’t know that organizing charters is going to save the labor movement, but we need to be organizing everywhere.”

Vol. 36, Issue 37, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: June 30, 2017, as New Union Battlefield: Charters
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