Teaching Profession

Unions Set Sights on High-Profile Charter-Network Schools

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 09, 2009 11 min read
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What started as a ripple in the charter community shows signs of becoming a wave as major charter school networks scramble to respond to an unfamiliar phenomenon: moves by their teachers to organize unions.

In the first half of this year, teachers formed collective bargaining units in schools run by several of the best-known and highest-profile charter management organizations. They include the Knowledge Is Power Program CMO’s Always Mentally Prepared Academy, known as KIPP AMP, in New York City; the four campuses of the Accelerated School in Los Angeles; and three Chicago charters operated by Civitas, a subsidiary of Chicago International Charter Schools.

Although teachers have unionized at other charter schools over the years, the recent activity is notable not only for being contentious in several instances, but also because policymakers, educators, and the news media are scrutinizing it much more closely. For that reason, commentators say, it carries high stakes for both teachers’ unions and the CMOs.

The contracts that are negotiated as a result of the new organizing efforts could be viewed as a test of how far the unions are willing to stray from traditional provisions and work rules. And for their part, the CMOs face the question of whether their principles of collaboration, accountability, and autonomy can be squared with clearer distinctions between teaching staffs and management.

Sites of Labor Activity


SOURCE: Education Week

The most successful charter school networks are organized around the public school equivalent of what is known in the private sector as a strong corporate culture.

They rely on the intense dedication of teachers and principals alike to a core set of principles upon which decisions are made, typically summed up in a statement of purpose or a motto, as in KIPP’s “Work Hard, Be Nice.” Each school also adheres to a college-preparatory curriculum and advocates accountability for all stakeholders, parent involvement, collaboration between teachers and administrators, and a commitment to responding nimbly to changing circumstances.

Teachers in the schools typically work longer hours than their peers in regular public schools. Though some earn higher salaries than those peers, they are generally at-will employees, meaning they can be dismissed without cause. But at the same time, the schools rely on close cooperation between staff members and administrators.

Even in the most highly respected charter models, maintaining that delicate balance of power has grown increasingly more complicated as the schools and networks have expanded, sometimes rapidly, to meet community demand.

“We’ve grown, quite honestly,” said Johnathan Williams, the founder and co-director of the Accelerated School in Los Angeles, whose teachers recently became recognized as an affiliate of United Teachers Los Angeles. “We used to have 50 students, and [teachers and administrators] made decisions in a circle. Now, we have 1,300 students, and some of the things we used to do we are no longer able to do.”

A.J. Duffy, the president of UTLA, said that teachers at the school no longer felt that they were part of a collaborative planning process, one of the school’s key tenets.

“Now, they have a master,” he said. “The teachers want the promise that they [are] central to decisionmaking returned to them.”

Similar complaints about a lack of input into decisions and unresponsive leadership were lodged by teachers at KIPP AMP in New York.

According to KIPP co-founder David Levin, the program’s model does have pathways through which teachers can contact superiors if their own school leaders aren’t responding to their concerns.

But Kashi Nelson, a teacher who initially joined the organizing efforts, said that those pathways had not been explicitly explained to KIPP AMP teachers, and that some teachers—especially those fresh from traditional public schools—did not feel comfortable using them.

Ms. Nelson said teachers were also concerned about some bread-and-butter issues, such as instructional planning time, paid leave, and evaluation procedures.

“I was stunned, quite honestly,” Mr. Levin said about the successful organizing drive. “Clearly, many of the teachers at KIPP AMP were frustrated, and we never want our teachers to be frustrated.”

Such complaints are perfect examples of why teachers in charter schools, even such well-regarded networks, need unions, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers—the parent organization of the newly formed affiliates in Chicago and New York City.

Ms. Weingarten further argues that unionization is a necessity for charter schools’ sustained success, once initial enthusiasm wanes and the hard work of educating students sets in.

“Short term, schools always have this sense of being on the frontier and the extra shot of adrenaline you get when you’re new and trying new things,” she said. “Ultimately, long term, schools will not be successful if teachers do not feel good about being there.”

Culture Clash?

In interviews, leaders of the CMOs indicated that they harbor concerns that unionization—especially the presence of third-party representatives in schools—will compromise their core cultures.

There is little education research that helps identify the effects of unionization on the cultural norms at work in schools. But the charter school advocates say unionization has historically carried a set of policies—such as seniority provisions and lengthy appeals processes for dismissed teachers—that discourage accountability and the recognition of differences in performance.

Some teachers who work in charters share those concerns. Shortly after the KIPP AMP teachers made their unionization bid, teachers in two New York KIPP-conversion charter schools who had been nominally affiliated with the United Federation of Teachers took steps to decertify from that citywide union.

Ms. Weingarten describes such concerns as dolled-up versions of the old argument that true professionals don’t join unions.

“Collaboration without having some balance of power is not collaboration, if a teacher knows that he or she can be fired for any reason at all,” she said. “Charter school operators look at at-will employment as if it’s the Rosetta stone.”

She added that her union is seeking ways to ensure that teachers are treated fairly in schools that don’t rely on seniority, and that collective bargaining in charters and in regular district schools will yield different outcomes.

Supporters of the union drives point to Green Dot, a Los-Angeles-based CMO, as proof that all the hallmarks of a strong charter school network can flourish alongside unionization.

All Los Angeles Green Dot schools are unionized through the California Teachers Association—a National Education Association affiliate—and Green Dot is finishing work on its first contract with the UFT for a New York City charter.

Steve Barr, the chief executive officer of Green Dot, said that his 53-page “thin contract” sets a structure to follow when collaboration breaks down. The advantage to beginning with a unionized teaching force, he said, is that teachers help define what that structure will entail.

“Whether you are union or nonunion, you will come across those differences,” Mr. Barr said. “If you don’t have that process, ... UTLA or UFT comes in with their own philosophy, and [then] you’re in a contentious fistfight.”

Still, he drew a distinction between schools that start off unionized—as his did—and those where unions have been organized unexpectedly. “If I found out the UTLA had organized my school,” as it recently did at the Accelerated School, “I’d probably be in a fetal position for a month,” Mr. Barr said.

A Difficult Balance

Ana F. Ponce, the executive director of the three schools that fall under the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, recalls the ups and downs of her teachers’ unionization in 2005.

Nearly four years later, she said, the undertaking has yielded some positive effects for the school.

“The biggest benefit really has been to have a partner in dealing with some of the staffing issues that come up, and trying to reach some resolution before they become ‘grievable’ issues,” said Ms. Ponce, who talks weekly with the head of her schools’ teachers’ union.

But the drive itself caused initial disruptions in the school culture. Ms. Ponce said she recalls teachers, at the union’s behest, engaging in aggressive public strategies, such as plastering schools with fliers and wearing pro-union T-shirts. Those activities were accompanied by a breakdown in collegiality at school, the establishment of a firmer line between staff and management, and the adoption of more formalized procedures.

“There were a couple of people that would walk out exactly at 4:15. We are very mindful of time and respectful of time, but we had never had that issue [before],” Ms. Ponce said.

High-pressure tactics can go both ways. Ms. Weingarten of the AFT alleges that Mr. Levin and administrators at KIPP AMP encouraged teachers to withdraw their union-authorization signature cards, at one point leaving at the school a manila folder with a petition for teachers to sign who wanted to withdraw their cards.

In Chicago, the Civitas management successfully petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to deem it a private employer—a distinction that now requires the teachers to approve the union by a secret-ballot election, typically a more difficult prospect than signature cards. The CEO of Civitas, Simon Hess, said the organization feels the process is more democratic.

Ms. Ponce’s charter organization recognized its union, but hostilities escalated during bargaining. The parties progressed through fact-finding to mediation, and the situation improved only after both sides took time off during the summer of 2006 and then returned to begin bargaining afresh.

According to Ms. Ponce, the success of her group’s contract with the union, which is just 22 pages, hinged on finding ways to update the collective bargaining process to retain flexibility and the network’s core principles, while responding to teachers’ concerns. That meant warding off some traditional proposals, such as seniority.

“It was a matter of taking a process that has existed for decades and challenging it to fit our needs,” Ms. Ponce said.

Executives at other CMOs that have recognized unions concur. “I just want to be sure that our mission is a core part of the agreement,” said the Accelerated School’s Mr. Williams. “If that is there, I think everything else will come together.”

Ms. Nelson, the teacher at KIPP AMP in New York, can appreciate both the possibilities and the pitfalls of unionization.

During the organizing process at her school, in which she took part, the UFT officials she worked with recognized the importance of addressing teachers’ needs through a unique contract, Ms. Nelson said.

But certain elements of the organizing drive, including constant meetings for union activities, exacerbated feelings of divisiveness.

“I was very concerned about being asked to pull parents into the fold and use the relationship I had with parents to get them involved in the union,” Ms. Nelson said. “I really thought that was going to be detrimental to our school culture.”

Ms. Nelson ultimately withdrew her signature card. She said she did so of her own volition.

Reactions Vary

A subtext to the recent unionization efforts concerns the fact that teachers’ unions have never exactly been on the same page as charter proponents about the appropriate function for the independent public schools.

Ms. Weingarten often refers to them as a laboratory in which new labor-relations strategies can be incubated and ultimately replicated in regular public schools. But the unions are less comfortable with the notion of charters as a type of school choice, a major argument of proponents.

“When I hear from Randi that [the AFT] wants to develop innovative contracts, my response is that they’ve got hundreds of schools where you can develop innovative contracts, and yet we have a 231-page collective bargaining agreement in Chicago,” Mr. Hess said. “I question how honest that is.”

Ms. Weingarten countered that many of those provisions historically have been added at the behest of administrators. The New York City contract also allows schools and union leaders to agree to modify certain provisions, she added.

Such complexities help explain the differences of opinion within the tightly knit charter school community about the significance of the recent unionization bids.

“I think maybe [the unions are] hoping for a symbolic victory that will lend more weight to what they’ve accomplished in reality,” said Todd Ziebarth, the vice president for policy at the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, pointing to the two KIPP schools where the teachers are pulling out of the union.

For Jed Wallace, the CEO of the California Charter Schools Organization, the spate of union activity is an acknowledgment of the charter school movement’s success.

“If [teachers’ unions] do not attempt to become viable partners in this space,” he said, “they risk becoming marginalized altogether.”

But to Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that promotes charters and other forms of school choice, the recent organizing drives are a worrisome sign that teachers’ unions have gained footholds in a movement they have struggled to contain.

“Frankly, I think the charter movement itself and charter people have let down their guard,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as Unions Set Sights on High-Profile Charter-Network Schools


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