School Choice & Charters Opinion

Some Bright Spots for Teacher Unions

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — September 05, 2016 6 min read
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It is traditional to write about organized labor on Labor Day. It is also traditional to bemoan the low state of unions in the United States where the percentage of private sector workers who are organized has fallen to about 7 percent. But I see some bright spots, particularly for teachers in California.

First, a point of view: I’ve written about teacher unionism for more that three decades and support both unionism in general and the expansive idea of teacher unions that holds that teachers should organize around the “teaching” part of their jobs as well as bread-and-butter issues. In both A Union of Professionals and United Mind Workers my co-authors and I show that unions are stronger when they can help teachers and advance the occupation of teaching writ large. And we point to places where interesting practices are taking place.

At the same time, what we’ve called “professional unionism” has not spread like a Norovirus. The number of unions that have engaged in what we call “organizing around quality” is still distressingly small, and accounts of unions doing interesting work on teacher evaluation, professional development, training or hiring tends to point to the same few locals. Meanwhile, teacher unions face existential threats. And, as I have written, teacher unions in California have been slow to grasp the unique opportunity these times offer.

Teacher unions have, of late, taken on a bit of a siege mentality: billionaires, privatizers, charter school profit mongers. Yeah, it’s true. Kinda. And all that makes for great negative campaign ads. But there are important bright spots in on-the-ground teacher unions that could and should be the theme for a new teacher union narrative.

Taking Charge of Quality

First, consider the take-charge-of-quality issue. As attention shifts from policies that punish teachers to policies that engage them, districts such as ABC that have had a long history of frank, tough minded teacher engagement become more attractive options, particularly since teacher engagement seems to benefit students, too. What’s called the “partnership” in ABC is not about cooperation for its own sake; it’s about the politics of getting things. It’s not about the politics of protest or resistance—speech making, bullhorns, and protest tee shirts&mdsah;it’s about confronting one another about things that matter. This rings true both in California and nationally, as David Kirp writes contrasting the high profile failure of Newark reforms with the less flashy, more substantive collaborative approach taken in Union City, a few miles away.

California districts and unions have also been successful in creating substantive teacher development programs that combine professional learning and tough-minded evaluation systems in districts such as San Juan and Poway. In these districts and others, union leaders took on the hard work of developing an evaluation and professional growth system voluntarily because leaders thought it was the right thing to do and because they were sufficiently trusted to gain support from their rank and file.

In the Pilot Schools in Los Angeles Unified, which have charter-like autonomy, teachers in two schools— UCLA Community School (K-12) and Social Justice Humanitas Academy (9-12)—have undertaken substantial responsibility for decision making at their site.

And unionized teachers are gathered in organizations such as the California Teachers Association’s Institute for Teaching and CalTURN to work on developing teacher leadership that does not have to leave the classroom, either for an administrative job or a full-time union position. At the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, the CTA is supporting the Instructional Leadership Corps project to train teachers to lead professional development for their peers.

California’s Unusual Politics

Second, California is unusual among the states because its politics created a working relationship between state government and the state’s two teacher unions. California is not Wisconsin or even New York. The CTA and the California Federation of Teachers supported the state’s radical shift in financing and governance toward local control.

Despite the misgivings of some of their vocal members, the unions have held tight in support of the Common Core of State Standards, and the new testing system it created. There are enough rough spots in this system that the unions could make an issue of it if they wanted, but they haven’t.

A Working Coalition

Third, the unions have joined a working coalition that supports turning its public education system away from the path it has followed for half a century: reversing decades of Sacramento centric education and moving power to schools and districts, and rebuilding local democracy. It’s trying to replace “test and punish” accountability with a capacity building system that nourishes green shoots of innovation and creativity. It’s trying to improve performance and equity at the same time.

CTA president Eric Heins co-chaired the task force along with the head of the state’s school administrators’ organization, Wes Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, the union’s natural enemy on many school policy issues.

Both CTA and CFT locals are participating in the state’s new Labor Management Initiative, now in its second year. It has brought teams from more than 80 school districts together to establish the relationships that will allow them to more effectively implement the Local Control Funding formula and to actualize the goal of continuous improvement.

Shining A Light on Charters

Fourth, they have started to shine a spotlight on charter school expansion. Political overreach by the charter sector, including a Broad Foundation plan to enroll at least half of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s students, has brought these schools and their fiscal sponsors under harsh scrutiny.

Last week, a coalition that includes State Treasurer John Chang and Los Angeles Unified School District board vice president George McKenna called on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign legislation that requires charters to comply with some of the same transparency rules that apply to school districts. AB 709 (Mike Gipson D-Carson) would require charters to comply with the state’s open meeting and public records acts. It would prohibit charter school board members and their families from benefiting financially from their schools.

The California Charter Schools Association opposes the legislation. In March it announced its “March to a Million” campaign to nearly double the number of charter school students in the state over the next five years.

One doesn’t have to be anti-charter—and I am not—to realize that the charter education sector that has grown so large and unwieldy needs to be regulated and authorized differently than it is now.

A Victory That Isn’t

Most union leaders would include overturning the Vergara decision as another bright spot. I don’t. As previous ‘On California’ columns have argued, the case challenging tenure and seniority laws would have made terrible constitutional law. But that doesn’t mean that the current statutes are defendable. Even though the case is likely history, the Vergara issues will be a political millstone around the neck of the CTA and CFT until the two unions remedy the faults in current law.

Ken Futernick, writing in this space, suggested a grand bargain. Others have suggested experimentation, but the CTA opposed even a modest waiver of two-years-to-tenure when the proposition was brought before the State Board of Education, and a modest tenure modification bill by Sen. Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) died in committee in the face of union opposition.

These issues are sure to rise again in the 2018 campaign for state superintendent, which promises to be as expensive as the last one. The CTA and CFT are good at trench warfare, but even if successful, it gains little ground.

The bright spots point unions toward a new narrative, beyond siege mentality, and toward political alliances that make trench warfare less necessary.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.