School Choice & Charters

Efforts to Unionize Charters Grow, But Results So Far Appear Modest

March 17, 2006 9 min read

After years of tense relations between teachers’ unions and the growing charter school movement, unions are stepping up their efforts to organize educators at the independent public schools.

So far, the results of the increased organizing activity—which stretches from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to California—appear modest. But it remains to be seen how much success the union efforts will achieve over time.

The American Federation of Teachers, among the strongest critics of charters nationally, is directing increased energy and resources to helping its state and local affiliates with charter-unionizing efforts, Edward J. McElroy, the president of the 1.3 million-member union, said in an interview last week.

“Charter schools are becoming an integral part of the K-12 landscape,” he said. “I think it’s important for the union to be there.”

The AFT’s Massachusetts affiliate launched an effort last year to get charter teachers to sign up as “associate” members, but out of 2,000 teachers targeted, only a few dozen have decided to join. In Pennsylvania, although a few charters are unionized, staff members at one charter school opted last fall to sever ties with the union, while teachers at a couple of other schools have voted against unionizing efforts in recent years.

More than two years ago, the National Education Association’s California affiliate launched a major charter-unionizing effort financed in part with $500,000 from the NEA. So far, the California Teachers Association appears to have only a small number of schools to show for its efforts. (“Calif. Union to Organize in Charters,” April 14, 2004.)

“CTA very strongly believes that all public school teachers should be organized into a union,” said Tom Conry, a member of the California union’s board of directors who has been active in its charter school work. “As we expected, it [has been] a slow process, but we’re having lots of successes, and those charter school sites that have shown interest, we’ve been going in and talking with them and signing schools up.”

Efforts to interview an official from the 2.8-million member NEA for this story were unsuccessful.

Most of the nation’s more than 3,500 charter schools are not unionized. Although start-up charter schools have occasionally opted for union status, far more of those with unionized workers were once regular public schools that converted to charter status and inherited an existing collective bargaining agreement. California, for instance, has many such schools.

Some charter supporters suggest that unions are incompatible with charter schools.

“At the end of the day, the unions are not going to be successful in this effort,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center on Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that backs charter schools.

“Most of these teachers were once in the conventional system,” she said, “and rejected many of the established procedures and contracts that they had to work under, which is what drove them to charter schools.”

By her count, fewer than 2 percent of charter schools are unionized.

‘A Lot of Work’

Mr. McElroy of the AFT said that his union has been discussing organizing teachers at charters for a couple of years now, but that the level of interest is rising from some affiliates.

“We are dealing with active interest in somewhere between a half-dozen and 10 states,” he said. “Our role at the AFT is to assist our local affiliates and state affiliates in terms of organizing, whether it’s research, whether it’s helping with staffing, the development of public relations, and outreach programs.”

Mr. McElroy downplayed the role of membership concerns in the charter-unionization effort, noting that from a financial standpoint, the effort might not pay off, since the number of charter teachers is relatively small. The Center on Education Reform estimates that charters employ about 56,000 full-time teachers.

“It’s not going to make or break the AFT,” Mr. McElroy said.

The main concern, Mr. McElroy said, is ensuring the right of teachers to be represented.

But others say the unions see a problem in the rise of the charter sector of public education. “It’s very clear that they’re losing market share,” said Ms. Allen from the Center on Education Reform.

The United Federation of Teachers, the AFT affiliate in New York City, is among those trying to recruit charter teachers. The union has launched its own charter school, with a second coming soon. (“A School of Their Own,” Feb. 22, 2006.)

“People still are struggling with what is the appropriate mix of working with charter schools while being critical of those charter schools that are doing things that are not good for either students or the teachers,” said Leo E. Casey, a special representative for high schools at the UFT. “It’s a lot of work [to organize unions at charter schools], but I think in the UFT we’re rather clear on the strategic necessity of doing this.”

He added: “You look at an industry like the auto industry where it was completely organized, and a decision was made that they weren’t going to organize auto parts in a significant fashion because a lot of them were small operations. … Now they’ve lost the whole [auto-parts] industry. So from our point of view, it’s essential that charter schools are organized.”

More than a year ago, the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers announced its effort to sign on charter school teachers as associate members. That level of membership is far less costly, and does not include collective bargaining. Instead, the teachers get a few benefits, such as liability insurance and discounts on professional-development programs.

Of the 2,000 teachers the union sent letters to, only about 50 signed up.

Kathleen A. Kelley, the president of the Massachusetts union, said the initiative was a step toward trying to bring charter teachers on as full members. She acknowledged that the effort is showing very modest results so far. “The attrition rate among teachers is so high [in charters],” she said. “Trying to organize members who don’t stay long is very difficult.”

Ms. Kelly also suggested that some teachers may face “veiled threats” from management if they unionize, and that perception issues also may play a role. “For some of the teachers, they just may have a feeling that they don’t want to belong to a union, that a union may be an obstacle to innovation,” a notion Ms. Kelley said she flatly rejects.

Like many other union leaders, Ms. Kelley says that teachers’ contracts can provide ample flexibility. “We’ve done a number of experimental schools. … We’re looking to do the same things that I’m sure charter schools are,” she said, “to really meet the challenges of all children.”

But Marc D. Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Association, said charter teachers “deliberately choose not to work in traditional school districts because of the rigidity of the workplace that the collective bargaining agreement creates. The union contracts are focused on putting teachers first instead of students, and that is the complete opposite to the philosophy of charter schools.”

No Massachusetts charter schools are currently unionized, with the exception of a batch of so-called Horace Mann charters that were created by districts in cooperation with the unions.

School Severs Tie

Union officials in Pennsylvania have also begun a charter-organizing effort. Two Philadelphia charters out of 55 are unionized, though one still has not negotiated a contract.

“We are just in the very early stages of talking to charter school teachers and reaching out to them to let them know what we can bring to the table,” said Barbara Goodman, a spokeswoman for the AFT-Pennsylvania. “Their chief concerns seem to be high staff turnover, employer demands on their off-school hours, … noninstructional responsibilities, and low salaries.”

But in some cases, the union hasn’t exactly been welcomed. One school, the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School, voted last September to sever its relationship with the union, reversing course from a faculty vote two years earlier.

And in 2004, some teachers at the Northside Urban Pathways charter school in Pittsburgh tried to organize their school, but the effort was rejected by teachers.

Linda M. Clautti, the chief executive officer of the 300-student school, contends that teachers received misinformation about what union membership would mean. The school even hired a lawyer to help administrators wade through the complex legal questions surrounding the unionizing effort, which she opposed.

“It was a long, arduous process, and expensive,” said Ms. Clautti.

The Atlantic Legal Foundation, a public-interest law firm in New York City that supports free-market causes, has begun publishing guides to help charter schools that encounter union organizing understand their legal rights and what they may do to resist such efforts. Last fall, it published a guide for New York state and is now finishing up similar guide books expected out this spring for California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.

Charter leaders “don’t have to stand mute and be paralyzed, but they also should know that the union doesn’t like this kind of dialogue and, by and large, the union comes in and moves secretly,” said Briscoe R. Smith, a senior vice president of the foundation.

Coexisting in California

Eric Premack, the co-director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, Calif., says he has mixed feelings about union efforts in charter schools. “We believe they have a right to bargain,” he said. “But when it comes to trying to ensure that charter schools get an equitable share of facilities and funding, we can always count on opposition from some of the same groups that are organizing staff and claiming to represent their interests.”

But union leaders insist they don’t oppose charters per se. “We’re hostile to bad charter schools,” said the AFT’s Mr. McElroy.

Caprice Young, the president of the California Charter Schools Association, says she doesn’t object to the CTA’s organizing efforts. “Unions and charters, we tend to coexist,” she said. She suggested, though, that the union doesn’t have much to show yet for its recent campaign.

The CTA declined to say how many charter schools have been unionized since the NEA-backed effort began in late 2003. A union official noted, though, that it’s taking different approaches, such as hosting a conference for its members this spring aimed at inspiring some to launch their own teacher-led, unionized charter schools.

The charter schools association said that by its count, the staff at only two schools have joined the union in response to the recent CTA campaign.

“Mostly, [charters] are very small schools where the teachers already have an enormous amount of say in the leadership of the school,” Ms. Young said. “They don’t necessarily feel that they need a union representing them.”

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Efforts to Unionize Charters Grow, But Results So Far Appear Modest

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