School Choice & Charters

Meet a Member of a Rare Breed: a Teacher at a Unionized Charter School

By Arianna Prothero — September 19, 2014 3 min read
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The country’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, and its largest state affiliate, the California Teachers Association, recently highlighted the organizing efforts at a pair of small charter schools in Alameda, Calif.

The CTA is focusing more energy on charter organizing, but as I point out in a recent story for Education Week, the national union presence in the charter sector remains spotty. While reporting that story, I had some interesting and thought-provoking conversations that I’ve been sharing here on Charters & Choice over the last three days.

Today, I bring you a Q&A with Carrie Blanche, a special education teacher at the Alameda Community Learning center, one of the charter schools that NEA president Lily Eskelsen García visited to promote the CTA’s new charter-organizing initiative. We talked about why the staff at her charter school decided to join a union, and what steps they took to successfully organize.

Check out the previous conversations in this three-part Q&A series which include insights from a researcher at the Fordham Institute and the director of a unionized charter school network, Green Dot Public Schools.

Q. Why did you and your fellow teachers decide to organize?

A. There had been an erosion of our democratic values at our school and it played out in the form of removing teacher voice from everything from staff meetings to committee meetings to school leadership. The other part was that ... we saw an increase in our daily work hours, an increase in the length of our work year, and the removal of our salary schedule.

The charter school has been around for about 20 years—it’s one of the oldest charter schools in California. In days of yore, charter schools often sprung out of district schools looking for funding and that’s what we were. We were an Alameda district school and on the innovative side of things.

When we first became a charter school there was no CMO [charter management organization] that had fiduciary power over our school. Our school was run and managed by a group of parents, teachers, and learners [students]. We were very committed and continue to be very committed to a democratic model where each stakeholder has voting rights on any kind of policy choice. And that existed until 2009 when the school district decided it didn’t want any more dependent charters and we had to become an independent charter.

The balance of power shifted from school-based control over programs and our finances to CMO-based control of our programs and finances and—union-related—our working conditions.

Q. What has the process been like?

A. It’s been very energizing. ... A large part of the energy in organizing was in educating newer staff and younger staff on what the value of a union is.

And we began representing each other immediately so if someone was asked into a meeting that might have disciplinary consequences, we went with each other. We just started doing that. We started acting like union. That was the very heartfelt advice we got from CTA. Their back point was that you have to train the administration.

We also brought our learners [students] and parents into the fold as soon as we could. Because we wanted to establish that the union wasn’t a mechanism to separate us from our alliance with parents and students, but to promote the democracy that we were committed to and [that] had been eroded. We got really overwhelming parent support.

When we filed our petition, when we asked the California state board that oversees unions, we were able to petition with over 70 percent of our staff signing. Since then support has only grown. ... We were advised that 51 percent could get us recognized, but if the CMO wanted to challenge the petition, things could get sticky. We wanted a strong majority, at least 65 percent.

Q. The new NEA president, Lily Eskelsen García, visited your school recently, what did she talk about?

A. She was interested in our organizing story. ... She enthusiastically acknowledged the work that we had done to organize and spoke very optimistically of the work we did spreading to other charter schools in California.

I tell everyone that I meet in conversation after conversation about what we’ve done in the hopes that the info will get out to other charter school teachers. CTA is ramping up their efforts to reach out and they’re including newly organized charter schools in that effort because our experiences are so pertinent to charter school educators who are thinking about organizing.

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