School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Scaled Down Contract: Boon or Bane to the Teaching Profession?

By Anthony Cody — July 21, 2011 5 min read
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Today I am sharing a guest post by Moira Saucedo, who is the mother of a special needs student in the Arlington County Public Schools, in Arlington, Virginia.

by Moira Saucedo.

My interest was sparked by a June, 2011 notice on Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s website of a $500,000 grant to the Future Is Now Schools, (FIN) a charter schools management organization founded by Steve Barr. FIN has been recently re-branded (some say divorced) from the LA-based Green Dot Public Schools, founded by Barr, and from Green Dot America, an effort by Barr to open charter schools nationally. The purpose of the grant is “to provide national support for the use of a scaled-down collective bargaining contract and to amplify the voice of reform-minded teachers in select cities by sharing organizing expertise.”

The “scaled-down collective bargaining contract” phrase gave me pause. Our nation has just gone through a harrowing year of stripped-away collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), and rollbacks of pensions and benefits. Since the mid-term elections there have been increased attacks on workers in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Tennessee, Idaho and Florida. Was this grant concrete evidence of Bill Gates jumping on the anti-union, anti-collective bargaining bandwagon?

The Instigator
Steve Barr is a former community organizer, Democratic Party fundraiser, and co-creator of “Rock the Vote”. He turned his attention from politics to the education reform movement in the late 1990s when he came out to California and met Don Shalvey, founder of California’s first charter school. Don Shalvey is now on the Board of Green Dot Public Schools, and he is also the Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Shalvey and Reed Hastings, who had just founded Netflix, were about to start up a ballot initiative in California that would greatly expand charter schools. Barr decided to help them. But he convinced Shalvey and Hastings to do something different from many charter school operations-- not to immediately think of the teacher unions as the enemy. He said, “You cannot go into a 100% unionized industry with non-union labor.” The California Teachers Association has been organizing the Green Dot Public Schools, quietly, since the early 2000’s. This campaign is still controversial within UTLA and CTA, so there’s not been a lot of publicity around the effort. But Green Dot, and now FIN, seem to be working with the NEA and AFT to “create a climate of common trust with teacher unions, forged in mutual respect” (according to the Green Dot Public Schools website).

In August 2000, Barr started up the Amino Leadership Charter High School, at the edge of Lennox, a poor, mostly Spanish-speaking community near the LA Airport. Subsequently Barr asked Los Angeles United School District to give his Green Dot Public Schools organization control of Alain Leroy Locke High School, which is at the edge of the Watts neighborhood. When the district refused, Barr took over the school and reopened it in the aftermath of a school riot between two cliques. Locke is currently eight small, separate Green Dot schools, each with a different focus but all with the stated goal of readying students for college. Green Dot Public Schools expanded and now consists of 17 charter schools in high-poverty neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and one UFT-organized high school in the Bronx. The model used is to takeover turnaround schools, using public funds that follow the student and philanthropic financing.

It’s All In The Fine Print

What does a Green Dot Public Schools union agreement look like? Only a few centralized policies are included: salary, health care, class size, and number of workdays. Teachers are paid 10-14% more than their counterparts at traditional public schools and they are given explicit input into decision-making authority in setting school policy to include the school’s budget, calendar, and curriculum, which is determined at the bargaining table. Teachers can teach what they want, how they want, as long as students pass quarterly assessments. There is no tenure, seniority preference, or probationary period for new teachers, and all teachers work under the protection of just cause discipline and dismissal. In addition, teachers work “a professional work day,” rather than defined minutes. Barr stated in a March, 2011 New York TV news channel interview --he is now organizing a second FIN school in the Bronx--that a professional work day means teachers are expected to work on site till 5 pm. So, the 10-14% “increase” in pay is, in fact, compensation for the increase in hours teachers are expected to work.

You Say Tomato
Are charter schools with unionism baked in a good thing? NEA, which wrote a fairly positive article about the Green Dot Public Schools in a March 2010 issue of NEA Today, says that different charter schools implement unions in different ways. Unions can be dictated by state policy, or they can be part of the school design, as in Green Dot schools. What often matters is what’s in the CBA, and how it’s implemented and enforced. Much is made of the brevity of Green Dot CBAs, but it seems likely that over time, more language will be added.

Bob Chase, former President of NEA, defined New Unionism as being as strong an advocate for the professional side of education as for the economic and social well-being of its members. Steve Barr also speaks of New Unionism, in this New York Post article,

If you're creating a new system you need a new unionism. If we're more streamlined and we have less bureaucracy we should pay the teachers more - which we do. We want our teachers to be part of the decision-making so they feel they have more say in the game. We want them to also commit to being more accountable: you don't have a job for life no matter what you do. Everybody is going to know we serve the kids first not the teachers first. There's no minutes or hours in our day - it's a professional contract and we require a professional workday. There's also "just cause" instead of tenure - which most businesses have. It gives you some protections but it's not an end-all.

Can I Get A Witness?
Barr has also said of his new FIN schools that they will ‘explore using a lot of technology in classrooms to augment traditional instruction’ in what he calls a ‘hybrid model’. What does that mean? Fewer teachers? Less-qualified teachers? Higher total student loads? A trend toward a virtual charter like Florida Virtual School?

There is a lot to admire about Steve Barr; his drive, his passion for improving the poorest of the poor schools in minority neighborhoods, the taking on of high schools, when many people feel that low-performing students after 9th grade are a hopeless case. But the FIN Board is comprised of the usual hedge fund managers, investment bankers, real estate developers, cable network owners and lawyers. There are no educators on the FIN Board. Apparently they like their CBAs short and to the point, and are going to get $500,000 from Bill Gates to keep them that way.

What do you think of the scaled down bargaining agreement? How do you feel about the Gates Foundation funding efforts to “amplify the voices of reform-minded teachers”?

image by Moira Saucedo, used by permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.