Teaching Profession

Calif. Teachers’ Union Sets Sights on Charters

By Arianna Prothero — September 05, 2014 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 4 min read
National Education Association President Lily Eskelson Garcìa poses at the teachers' union's Washington headquarters. Her visit to two recently unionized charter schools in California highlighted charter-organizing efforts in that state.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Corrected: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Cristina de Jesus, Green Dot’s president and the CEO of its California schools.

A pair of small charter schools sharing the same campus in Alameda, Calif., received a big-name visitor last month: the new president of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen García.

At first blush, a charter school may seem like a strange forum for the head of the country’s largest teachers’ union to hold a press conference. But the Alameda Community Learning Center and the Nea Community Learning Center are rarities in the charter sector because the schools’ teaching staffs are unionized. Ms. García was in California to help encourage more charter schools to do the same.

The California Teachers Association, or the CTA, the NEA’s largest state affiliate, officially listed charter school organizing as a focus area in its long-term strategic plan in January after nibbling around the issue for two years. However, the national charter sector remains largely union-free despite the efforts of the country’s two largest teachers’ unions, the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers.

“To be frank, it’s new and it’s also something internally that we had to wrestle with,” said Terri L. Jackson, who is a member of the CTA’s board of directors. “I believe when charter schools first came on the scene, a lot of educators thought it [the charter movement] was going to be a fad.”

But with more than 6,000 charter schools nationwide, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, teachers’ unions at every level have been revamping their stance toward their charter brethren.

Earlier Efforts

National charter-organizing initiatives from the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers date back to around 2007 and the economic downturn when, according to several union organizers, many former district teachers found themselves in charter schools because they had the only jobs available.

“We started actively organizing charter schools pretty much right as they began evolving—first in New York, where my predecessor Al Shanker supported charters as hubs of innovation, then in Florida and throughout the country,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in an email to Education Week.

Several charter schools belonging to high-profile networks in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York were unionized in 2009, setting off speculation that there might be a wave of organizing efforts. But the number of charters unionizing each year seems to remain at a relative trickle.

An Education Week search found that so far in 2014, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans each had one local charter school unionized while St. Paul, Minn., had two. And earlier this summer, the staff at a charter school in Marlborough, Mass., voted to join the local Teamsters union because staff members, worried by anti-charter sentiments, feared they wouldn’t get fair representation from the local teachers’ union.

Nationally, the percentage of unionized charter schools has dropped from 12 percent in 2009 to 7 percent in 2012, according to an annual survey by the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

Reasons Why

There are varying theories as to why unions haven’t gotten a firm foothold in the charter market. Charter school advocates contend their teachers are committed to the belief that educational innovation depends on school autonomy, including freedom from burdensome collective-bargaining contracts.

Union organizers paint a different picture. They point to a persistent myth that charter school employees can’t unionize and to hostile charter school managers who quash organizing efforts by lawyering up and punishing teachers who try.

However, union advocates say they are adapting to the charter sector. One AFT organizer said it will abandon any unionizing effort that doesn’t have strong parental support and at least 90 percent of a school’s staff members on board.

But even if a charter school staff does join a union, it doesn’t mean its contract will look like those for educators in its more-typical, district-run counterparts.

Green Dot Public Schools, a chain of 21 schools in California and one in Memphis, Tenn., has had unionized staff since it began 15 years ago. Its unions are CTA-affiliated.

“We like to talk about our contract being a thin contract compared to a large district that can have thousands of pages,” said Cristina G. de Jesus, Green Dot’s president and the CEO of its California schools. For example, there is no recognition of teacher tenure. “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,” said Ms. de Jesus.

Whether unionization starts to pick up in the charter sector may depend on how charters evolve. The growth of large charter networks could create more incentives for teachers to organize if charter chains start to function more like large bureaucratic school districts.

“If you’re one school, one principal, then teachers feel like they have more say in the direction of the school,” said Dara B. Zeehandelaar, the research manager at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research and advocacy group. “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.”

Both state and national organizers believe unionization efforts will slowly pick up and build as more charter staffs join unions.

Several organizers said the most powerful tool in their toolbox is word of mouth and people like Carrie Blanche. Ms. Blanche is a special education teacher at the Alameda Community Learning Center recently visited by the NEA’s president.

“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,” she said.

Related Tags:

Library Intern Rachel James contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as In Calif. and Elsewhere, Unions Seek Inroads Into Charter Schools


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Whitepaper
Building Your Financial Security for Retirement
“Building Your Financial Security for Retirement” is a new whitepaper from EdWeek and Equitable to help educators learn how to make plans...
Content provided by Equitable
Teaching Profession Reported Essay Students Aren’t the Only Ones Grieving
Faced with so many losses stemming from the pandemic, what can be done to help teachers manage their own grief?
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Teaching Profession Reported Essay Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be
The pandemic has put teachers through the wringer. Administrators must think about staff well-being differently.
6 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Teaching Profession We Feel Your Grief: Remembering the 1,000 Plus Educators Who've Died of COVID-19
The heartbreaking tally of lives lost to the coronavirus continues to rise and take a steep toll on school communities.
3 min read
090321 1000 Educators Lost BS
Education Week