Teaching Profession

Teachers at Calif. Charter Schools Chaired by Michelle Rhee Are Working to Unionize

By Madeline Will — May 03, 2017 4 min read
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UPDATED (5/4, 10 am: Post updated with quotes from teacher)

The majority of teachers at four California public charter schools have just signed a petition to unionize—despite the fact that the chairwoman of the schools’ board of directors, Michelle Rhee, has been a vocal critic of teachers’ unions for years.

A super-majority of teachers, school psychologists, and other certified educators at St. Hope Public Schools in Sacramento signed a petition to be represented by the Sacramento City Teachers Association, which is an affiliate of the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association.

John Borsos, the Sacramento union’s executive director, said in an interview with Education Week Teacher that periodically, some of the charter network’s roughly 100 teachers would reach out to the union to consider organizing, but interest had ebbed and flowed until this spring.

The union says that educators are frustrated with the network’s lack of transparency regarding school finances, high administrative turnover, and their evaluation system. Salaries can fluctuate by as much as $10,000 a year, based on observations from “often overworked and inconsistent” administrators, one teacher told The Washington Post.

These conditions have caused large amounts of teacher churn and discontent, the union and educators have said. At Sacramento Charter High School, there’s an estimated 40 percent teacher turnover rate, according to the union.

“Our kids deserve consistency,” said Kingsley Melton, a government teacher at Sacramento Charter High, who is in his sixth year of teaching there. “In many cases, our students come from homes where there is no consistency. They need us to be the constant and not the variable.”

He said teachers also want more transparency from the administration—"We have never seen a budget,” he said. “We don’t know where the money goes and why.”

The exact number of teachers who signed the petition has not been released. Borsos said the teachers who didn’t sign are not necessarily unsupportive of organizing, but were concerned about potential reprisal from the administration.

“Going forward, we represent all educators at St. Hope schools. All teachers have an opportunity to provide input,” he said. “There’s a commonality of issues [that all educators are concerned with]: turnover, professional learning, turnover in administration, [and salaries].”

The signed petition is now under review by the California Public Employment Relations Board, which must confirm that the majority of employees support the proposal. The Washington Post reported that this could take as little as two weeks or as long as 180 days, depending on whether St. Hope’s management challenges the process.

It’s unclear whether there will be a challenge. In a statement provided to the Post, the network said: “The fact that CTA has brought outside media attention to this shows that their priority is on creating national political theatrics. While that’s unfortunate, the focus of St. Hope Public Schools will remain on students and ensuring they get the education they deserve.”

Melton said he had a sit-down conversation with the school’s principal on Wednesday to talk about the “need to go forward despite the media distractions.” They were on the same page about putting the students first, Melton said.

Rhee, who founded the national advocacy organization StudentsFirst, has not commented publicly on the issue yet. She previously battled with teachers’ unions during her tenure as the chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools.

“We want to bring unity to the school—and not just among the teachers, but between the teachers and administrators of St. Hope,” Borsos said. “There’s often this reaction that unionization is an adversarial process, and it doesn’t have to be. We would urge the administration of St. Hope to look at it as an opportunity to facilitate communication. ... It’s an opportunity to make positive changes.”

Typically, teachers in charter schools are not members of a teachers’ union. There are 15 charter schools in Sacramento, and if the St. Hope teachers’ bid is successful, the union will represent 60 percent of the charter school teachers in the city. Borsos said that would likely give Sacramento’s union one of the highest rates of charter school representation in the country.

St. Hope was founded by Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star and former mayor of Sacramento, who is married to Rhee. In 2003, St. Hope took over Sacramento High School, a struggling public school that was shut down by the Sacramento school board. At the time, the local union bitterly opposed St. Hope’s takeover.

Melton said there are a couple of staff members who still remember the union’s opposition to the formation of the charter school, and “for them, CTA will forever be not aligned with what they’re trying to do.” He said he hopes that once the union bid moves forward, and the staff members learn how open the process is, they will come around.

Borsos said Johnson has experience being represented by a union during his time in the NBA, and often talks about being raised by his grandfather, a sheet-metal worker. Borsos said he hopes Johnson draws from those experiences to “lead the organization to have a constructive relationship with the educators.”

“If you have educators expressing their will ... and the administration decides not to abide by that will, I think that says more about them than anyone,” he said.

Background on St. Hope:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.