School Choice & Charters

Why More Charter Schools Aren’t Unionized

By Arianna Prothero — September 18, 2014 4 min read
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Unions have struggled to gain traction in the fast-growing charter sector. As the number of charter schools has grown nationally, the number of unionized staff members has shrunk according to the most recent data from the Center for Education Reform.

Only about 7 percent of charter schools were unionized in 2012, down from 12 percent in 2009, according to a 2014 annual survey by CER, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

I examined this issue in a recent story for Education Week. While reporting it, I had some interesting and thought-provoking conversations that I’ve been sharing here on Charters & Choice.

Today, I bring you a Q&A with Dara Zeehandelaar, research manager at the Fordham Institute in Washington, a right-leaning think tank. We discussed the conflicting ideologies behind union contracts and charter school autonomy, and how unions are adapting. Zeehandelaar told me, “The unions over their entire existence have to keep modifying their goals because they’re actually very good at accomplishing them.”

Yesterday I had a Q&A with a Green Dot’s president and CEO of its California schools, Cristina de Jesus. Green Dot is a chain of more than 20 unionized schools. Check back here tomorrow for a conversation with an educator who recently helped organize the staff at her charter school in California.

Q. What has been the union response to charter schools?

A. When the charter-school movement first started, this was in direct opposition to everything that unionization meant where you have a very strict contract outlining anything considered teacher working condition within state law: your working hours, how big your class is, you get even more detailed like how many staff meetings each school year a teacher is required to attend, how much teachers get paid and how pay is determined.

In states where charter schools are not bound by the collective-bargaining agreement, school leaders can make autonomous decisions on any of those things. So, they can decide their own class size, teacher working hours; they can have school on Saturday. The asterisk is that some states do require their charters operate under the collective-bargaining agreement.

Now there’s momentum behind the charter movement. The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, their hand has been forced, and they can no longer ignore charters. But now that the movement has gained momentum, their membership is also being threatened because you have a finite number of schools: The greater percentage of those schools that are charters, the fewer percentage of schools are district schools, and the fewer teachers that are unionized.

At least on the surface, the charter movement and unions are no longer at odds because they can’t be. It’s better to be at the table than on the menu. The unions want to participate in this discussion and both of them, the NEA and the AFT, have taken a stance that charters are one way to provide students with high-quality options, emphasis on the ‘one way.’ We tenuously endorse them [charter schools] with the following caveats, including that they not be exempt from state labor laws.

Q. Why have we not seen more unionized charter schools?

A. I would guess that part of the reason that charter teachers are not unionizing is that they believe in the importance of autonomy. I would also surmise that charter school teachers are not that interested in unionizing because they’re young, and young teachers believe in it less.

Are we in danger of going back to the situation where teachers are fired capriciously, not adequately paid for their work, and where you have blatant gender discrimination? Regardless of whether they [young teachers] have been in a union, they don’t really see these things as threats any more so they’re not as inclined to move toward unionization.

In a district school, your principal is usually not the one that hires you—the district hires you then places you at a school. ... A teacher might be more worried about job security because they don’t have a relationship with the leadership. ... At a charter school, the school director hires you. The teacher might trust the leadership more.

But local unions are about job security and teachers are recognizing that, my goal and reason for becoming a teacher is larger than protecting my own job, and I see a limitation on, say, work hours is detrimental to my students. They recognize it’s a trade-off.

Q. Will we see more unions in charters over time?

A. I think that if you see more charter schools consolidating into larger networks then you could see an increase in unionization. If you’re one school, one principal, then teachers feel like they have more say in the direction of the school. But if it’s a network where personnel decisions are not being made at the school level, I can see that perhaps leading to an increase.

And that onus is really on the charter network operators. No one at KIPP—and KIPP probably has the longest hours and hardest working conditions—no one at KIPP is about to man the picket line. Even though they do have a national network, they have made a point of leaving school-management decisions with the school director.

It’s not like the Wild West if you don’t have collective bargaining agreements. ... I think there is more teacher discretion and teacher consultation and discussion than the unions are giving charter directors credit for.

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