Teaching Profession

Unionization of Charter Schools: Where the Movement Stands Now

By Emmanuel Felton — April 21, 2017 3 min read
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The announcement by teachers at Noble Charter Schools—the largest charter network in Chicago—that they intend on unionizing was greeted with much fanfare, garnering praise from figures as high up as American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. While unionization drives like the one at Noble are mostly waged at the school level, they fit into a loosely organized national drive to expand union representation into charter schools. Looking across the country, the success of recent efforts has been mixed at best.

As of February of this year, the AFT was representing teachers at 229 charter schools scattered across 15 states. Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that the union’s efforts to recruit new charter teachers has only intensified with the election of President Donald Trump and the appointment of his education secretary Betsy DeVos, who is pushing for more school choice and charter schools, reports Politico.

“AFT for a long time has tried to organize charters. But recently has quadrupled down on that effort,” Todd Ziebarth told Politico. “It was a priority, and then it became a huge priority.”

But a spate of recent defeats offers a window into the challenges ahead. In th District of Columbia, teachers at Paul Public Charter School recently called off a vote to unionize. Initially, the drive seemed likely to succeed with 58 of the school’s 82 teachers, instructional aides, and counselors signing a petition informing administrators of their intent to organize, reports WAMU, a public radio station in that city. But in a statement following the decision to call off a unionization vote, the AFT charged that the charter had “created a toxic environment so full of fear, harassment, and intimidation that we felt a fair election would be impossible at this time.”

“It’s really hard to listen to people constantly demonizing the union, demonizing teachers who support the union, and not let it get to you,” Patricia Sanabria, a third-year English teacher who supports unionizing, told WAMU.

While Jami Dunham, Paul’s CEO, is against unionizing, arguing that the school was founded in part to get out from under the shadow of the teachers’ union, she denies that administrators have been pressuring teachers to vote no.

“Teachers and administrators that had a different perspective on unionizing were candidly sharing with one another what they thought this could mean for the school. We had very candid conversations with one another throughout this process,” she told WAMU.

Teachers at Noble Schools in Chicago also say that they’ve been encountering fierce pushback from management. Leading them to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in April, reports WBEZ, a public radio station in Chicago.

“We are only asking for the ability to discuss the prospect of unionization,” said teacher Ann Baltzer in a press release. “Management will not even allow us to meet after students have been dismissed, on our own time.”

Like the charter CEO in Washington, leaders of the Noble network, which operates 17 campuses that collectively educate 12,000 students, deny that they are exerting any undue influence on the process, saying in a statement, “Noble’s leadership has and will continue to respect every Noble teacher’s right to organize or not to organize.”

Recently, charter school teachers in New Orleans have found some success by turning to the NLRB. So far, teachers at four schools in the district, which is nearly all-charter, have unionized. But two of those unionization drives were particularly contentious, with the boards at International High and Lusher Charter rejecting teachers’ requests to unionize. That led teachers at those two schools to appeal to the NLRB, which sided with them. The schools have, however, vowed to take their fights to court, reports The Advocate.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.