School & District Management

The Teachers’ Unions Have a Charter School Dilemma

Can unions continue to criticize charter schools while wooing charter teachers?
By Arianna Prothero — December 14, 2018 8 min read
Educators with Acero charter schools strike outside the Veterans Memorial Charter School Campus on Dec. 4, 2018, in Chicago. Hundreds of teachers went on strike at the Chicago charter school network, leading to canceled classes for thousands of students.
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A dispute over pay and class size in Chicago boiled over into the nation’s first charter school strike this month, raising questions about how teachers’ unions, going forward, will reconcile their longheld opposition to charters with their need to pick up more dues-paying members.

The historic walkout—and the concessions won by the Chicago Teachers Union on behalf of the striking charter school teachers—was welcome news for unions, which are predicted to potentially shed substantial members and revenue after the fateful U.S. Supreme Court Janus decision earlier this year.

Soon after the strike started, people began asking whether cracks were starting to show in the charter movement, the first viable public alternative—and challenge—to traditional public schools. For so long the charter movement has steadily expanded in many American cities, propelled by some of the world’s wealthiest philanthropists.

The Chicago teachers’ strike has been largely cast in the media as a major symbolic win for teachers’ unions and a warning sign for charter schools and their supporters.

But there are equally fraught—if less examined—questions facing unions as they simultaneously decry charters as the tools of billionaires trying to privatize public education and encourage charter teachers to join their ranks. A growing unionized workforce in the charter sector may very well require changes from teachers’ unions as well as charter schools.

Anti-Charter Policy Pushes

Unions have longed positioned themselves as the defenders of traditional public schools, and have used their considerable political and financial clout to stymie charters. In Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union has called for a moratorium on all new charter schools. Elsewhere, unions have lobbied to block additional state funding for charter schools, backed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of charter schools, campaigned to keep caps on the number of charter schools allowed to open, and called for bans on charter management groups and companies.

Unions have also sought to capitalize on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ unpopularity and her ardent support for school choice by aggressively tying charter schools and their supporters—including Democrats and other political liberals—to the secretary and an agenda of a corporate takeover of public education.

This may present labor organizations like the Chicago Teachers Union, which represents the educators and paraprofessionals at the 15-school Acero charter school network who recently walked out, with a tough balancing act in welcoming this new breed of educator from the very sector it has long demonized.

“I think where I draw the line–I’m not so sure–I mean, we’re not going to organize charter schools that are whites-only or that are going to cross those kinds of lines,” said Jesse Sharkey, the CTU’s president.

While Sharkey said he still holds a critical view of charter schools, he sees a distinction between the teachers and paraprofessionals who “are trying to change it and make it better” and the schools’ management.

Another issue facing unions is whether they are willing to take on some of the charter sector’s baggage. While union leaders at large have slammed the charter sector for corruption scandals and laws that allow for-profit companies to run schools, some unions have showed a willingness to organize teachers in those schools.

The California Teachers Association, which, like the Chicago Teachers Union, has made organizing charters a goal, is now the parent union to the new California Virtual Educators, which represents the staff at California Virtual Academies. The network contracts with K12 Inc., the largest for-profit charter management company in the country, whose schools have a shaky academic track record.

Acero, in Chicago, was formally called UNO Charter Schools. It was rebranded after a scandal that led to the network being charged in federal court with defrauding investors.

Countering Membership Losses

While often at odds in the political arena, teachers’ unions and charter advocates do have one thing in common, as both entities have recently found themselves on more uncertain terrain.

The Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which made it unlawful for unions to charge fees to nonmembers, could decimate union revenues. And backing among Democratic leadership for charter schools, which have long claimed bipartisan support, has been swiftly eroding.

“Both sides, I think, are more susceptible, more amenable to hearing the arguments of the other side today than they were five years ago,” said Patrick McGuinn, a political science professor at Drew University.

For unions, one way to help counter membership loss among traditional district schools is to cultivate new members in the charter sector, an effort that was already underway in Chicago.

About a quarter of all Chicago charter schools have been unionized, compared to 11 percent nationally, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. However, it’s worth noting that charter organization may not be a strategy other state and local unions choose to pursue. Nationally, there are 3.1 million public school teachers, according to the federal government. There are only about 219,000 charter school teachers, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In Chicago, only about 4 percent of all of the CTU members work at a charter school.

Unionizing charter schools, the majority of which are single site schools, requires a lot of work and doesn’t necessarily deliver big returns.

But wanting to organize charter schools and actually delivering for the charter educators who took the step, sometimes amid threats of retaliation from school management, to unionize are two separate things. Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies labor and education reform in the city, said the charter strike in Chicago was successful—it ended in mostly a win for the union after four days—because the teachers and paraprofessionals who walked out weren’t just asking for more pay.

“[T]hey also were calling for sanctuary status for undocumented students, and this is a largely Latinx student population in Acero,” she said. “I think that’s a concern for both teachers and students but also families and the communities being served by these schools.”

The tentative deal, which includes pay raises for teachers and paraprofessionals, also shortens the school year and changes the way the school day is structured.

It’s a deal that probably doesn’t sit well with many charter advocates.

Contract Restrictions

Stipulations like those negotiated in collective-bargaining contracts are one of the main reasons that the charter school sector has not embraced teachers’ unions, say advocates. Such contracts can fly in the face of the ethos of the charter movement: schools freed from district bureaucracy, so they have the flexibility to innovate.

Labor contracts can be highly prescriptive when it comes to how much time teachers spend in school.

Even the length and number of meetings allowed might be dictated by the collective-bargaining contract, said Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University.

Those constraints can greatly restrict a school’s strategies for trying to close achievement gaps, which may include offering longer school days or years, for example. A contract can limit a principal’s ability to meet with staff for extra training or to discuss important issues facing the school.

On the flip side, said Strunk, a contract can help keep teachers from being worked into burnout.

Another major sticking point for charter schools is that union contracts often dictate that layoffs must be done by seniority, with the most junior teachers let go first.

“You may have a fantastic first-year teacher who is killing it in the classroom, and a principal has no choice but to let that teacher go,” said Strunk. “That is a big problem principals have long decried.”

Charter school advocates are careful to say they are not anti-union, per se. Andrew Broy, the president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said he’s more concerned with one-size-fits-all contracts for district and charter schools.

“You simply cannot adhere to a charter model that prizes innovation at the school site if you have a single contract on top of 37 diverse schools in the city. It’s not possible,” said Broy.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools has been working with schools to try to improve communications between leadership and teachers to make union organizing less attractive.

“They’ve got to be aware that the [CTU’s] agenda is not about any individual school, it is much more about stopping charter growth and imposing a single contract,” said Broy.

Post-Janus Calculus

So, are unions going to start toning down their anti-charter rhetoric in order to grow membership in the sector?

They may not have to, said Todd-Breland of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rank-and-file charter school educators are not necessarily as committed to the charter cause as leadership or advocates.

“I think for a lot of charter teachers this is where they found a job, and they are dedicated to their students and their families,” she said.

But in a post-Janus world, that calculus could be changing, Strunk, of Michigan State, said.

Unions need due-paying members wherever they can find them to stay afloat, she said.

“I think the union is going to really turn to the bread-and-butter issues—fighting for protections teachers want today,” Strunk said.

In addition to bargaining for the essentials such as salary and benefits, she said, the next generation of teachers want more professional roles and to have a seat at the table in developing a school’s strategy for improving student outcomes.

“That can be useful for both charter and traditional public schools,” she said.

Staff Writer Madeline Will contributed to this report.

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