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.
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.
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.
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