An online charter school in western Pennsylvania claims to have made virtual education history three years ago by becoming what is thought to be the first cyber charter school in the nation—and the only one to date—to unionize. In June 2009, teachers at the PA Learners Online Regional Cyber Charter School voted 42-14 to have the Pennsylvania State Education Association represent 76 teachers, counselors, and other employees.
Those involved in making that happen say the move could signal the start of a different kind of relationship between teachers’ unions and virtual education, one that, despite continuing concerns over how online schools are managed, results in more collaboration.
“As an association, as a union, our job is to do what we can for students, so we’re going to continue to attempt to organize school workers, wherever they are,” said Mike Crossey, the president of the PSEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
Though it’s still too early to tell whether the unionized Pennsylvania cyber school, which is changing its name to STREAM—or Science, Technology, Research, Engineering, Arts, and Math—Academy as of the 2012-13 school year, will spur similar partnerships. But it does offer a contrasting view of teachers’ unions that more typically make news for their attempts to block or limit virtual schools. Those attempts have taken place in several states in recent years.
In July, a group of prominent education organizations in New Jersey, including the New Jersey Education Association, asked acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf to decline approval of two virtual charter schools, citing numerous legal and policy concerns. Less than a week later, the State of New Jersey Board of Education granted the New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School and the New Jersey Virtual Charter School a planning year, allowing the schools additional time to develop their academic and operational components to ensure a successful opening in 2013-14.
With the number of virtual schools continuing to grow, teachers’ union leaders insist that, while their primary role is to represent their members, they are not against online education. Instead, they see themselves as cautiously supportive, particularly when it comes to for-profit ventures.
“This is the kind of thing we want,” Mike Kaspar, a senior policy analyst for the 3 million-member NEA, said of alliances with online schools. “But with more charter schools being privatized, what does that mean in terms of quality, accessibility, and accountability? Will there be the same checks and balances in place?”
Those questions are even more critical, he added, given the number of states—Pennsylvania, interestingly, is among the most recent—that have moved to curb collective bargaining rights for teachers.
Defining New Roles
Others are curious to see how blended learning, which combines aspects of brick-and-mortar and online instruction, might influence future relationships between teachers’ unions and the virtual world. The NEA released a policy brief in 2011 expressing support for the blended approach.
“There’s more activity in this area than anywhere else right now, and there are going to be roles that are defined that don’t necessarily look like the roles we’ve traditionally seen in schools,” said Matthew Wicks, the chief operating officer for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va.
As it is, there is still hesitation to get too friendly just yet. In May, despite a substantial recruitment campaign by the PSEA, teachers at the Agora Cyber Charter School in a close vote—214-200—rejected the opportunity to unionize. The teachers for that Pennsylvania school had responded to the campaign with one of their own, contending that the PSEA’s past attempts to slash charter school funding likely would have forced Agora, and schools like it, to close. Agora served some 9,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in 2011-12.
Doug Tuthill, who now runs a nonprofit scholarship program based in Tampa, Fla., for low-income children across the state, held leadership responsibilities in teachers’ unions at the local and state levels for years. He has long pushed for a change in the way unions operate and views virtual education as a prime testing ground to do just that.
“I have argued since the early ‘90s that we’ve needed a new unionism, that instead of protecting teachers from a dysfunctional system, we ought to be in the business of empowering them to change the system,” Mr. Tuthill said.
Meanwhile, the NEA has just begun revising its distance education policy, last written and adopted in 2002, which will address future connections between unions and cyber schools.
“It will talk about what that relationship would look like, and what we think needs to be in place to make that relationship happen,” said Mr. Kaspar of the NEA. “We are definitely adapting.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Unions See Opportunities in Online Charter Schools