School Choice & Charters

Insights From a Unionized Charter School Network

By Arianna Prothero — September 17, 2014 4 min read
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Despite a national decline in the number of charter schools with unionized staffs over the past few years, one high-profile charter chain based in California is not only unionized, it’s also expanding into new states.

Green Dot Public Schools has had a unionized staff since its inception 15 years ago. But nationally only 7 percent of charter schools were unionized in 2012, down from 12 percent in 2009, according to a 2014 annual survey by the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

I examined why unions have struggled to gain traction in the charter movement in a recent story. While reporting it, I had some interesting and thought-provoking conversations that I’m going to share here on Charters & Choice over the next three days, starting with a Q&A with Green Dot’s president and CEO of its California schools, Cristina de Jesus. Green Dot consists of 21 schools in California and one in Memphis while another school is scheduled to open in the state of Washington next year.

Check back here tomorrow for a conversation with an expert on teachers’ unions from the Fordham Institute, and on Friday I’ll have a Q&A with an educator who recently helped organize the staff at her charter school in California.

Q. Your charter school teachers have always been unionized. Why did Green Dot make the decision to go the organized route at the onset?

A. I think first and foremost we started with a deep-rooted belief to have teachers at the table and for there to be built-in collaboration for teachers and managers. And our founder didn’t want there to be any excuse for why other district schools can’t do what we do. No, we’ll do it the same way the district is doing it, and we’ll do it better.

Q. What has the experience been like for Green Dot?

A. It’s always more nuanced and complex when you are trying to truly involve multiple stakeholders, unionized or otherwise. But we have maintained a strong commitment to making it work. We have monthly meetings with our core management team and the core executive team for the union. ... We have retreats with our union executive board ... and I have breakfast with our union president once or twice a month.

We’re not going to entertain divisiveness in the relationship. Our kids are depending upon us to walk forward together. It’s easy for things to flow back to the status quo—to the teachers versus management. If you don’t pay attention to that culture, it will get away from you.

Q. How do your contracts differ generally from what people might consider a typical, traditional school teachers’ union contract?

A. We like to talk about our contract being a thin contract compared to a large district that can have thousands of pages to sort through. We don’t have tenure, which most districts do. ... We define a professional work day as, whatever it takes to get the job done, you stay there. Now, we don’t abuse that, but we’re not going to clock your time in and out. If you think about the recent Vergara case—the first-in, last-out clauses—where in a lot of union contracts the younger teachers are the first out, we don’t have that.

Q. How much control do principals have to hire their own teachers?

A. We at our home office, we filter candidates down, where they have to pass a minimum threshold to get interviewed, but the principal, along with their hiring panel which includes teachers, decide who they want to hire.

Q. The charter compact, broadly speaking, is greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability. And that autonomy is supposed to allow charters the freedom to innovate, and to be incubators for new educational practices and ideas. Do you feel having a unionized staff—and the added layer of union rules—limits your ability to try new things? Why or why not?

A. My gut reaction would be no, I don’t think that it prevents us from being innovative. ... But we do need to make sure that we live by our principles: It’s not innovation for innovation’s sake, but that it’s been tested by our teachers. Any innovation that we want to do we try to work with our union executive board. ... We’ve been very explicit about piloting for a short amount of time with a small group, bringing it to a larger group and eventually rolling it out across the whole system.

It’s allowed teachers to have a voice on how we shape that innovation and it allows teachers to speak for the innovation. ... Folks might feel that we’re a little bit slower, but at the end of the day the people in the classroom really own it. People really want to push innovation fast, but this is a marathon, not a race; we’re in it for creating sustainable change, not quick change. And for us that means taking the time to work alongside our teachers.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.