How Unionized Charters Can Be a Good Thing for Schools and the Union

More charter schools are unionizing.  I predicted this a while back in New Orleans, but we are seeing it in Oakland too.   A recent article in Oakland magazine highlighted a number of East Bay charters where teachers are organizing.  And while there are some sweaty palms and gnashing of teeth, this may not be a bad thing, and may be a good one.

Charters and unions are often seen as diametrically opposed.  This isn’t really an accurate history since one of the philosophical architects of the “charter school” was Albert Shanker, but it’s a current rhetorical reality.

On one side critics wonder whether unions will undermine charter school autonomy and lower standards, and on the other advocates see unionization as a way to ensure teacher voice and staffing stability necessary to maintain high quality.  The truth is somewhere in between, and like most charter issues really depends on how local communities play it out.

I have seen the good and the bad.  I have led a unionized charter and worked with several others.  And while there is some self-satisfied snickering in the dickier wing of the so called charter movement, when unionized schools struggle.  There often isn’t a similar recognition of high performing unionized models, like the continuing success and recent National Blue ribbon Award for the University Prep Charter High School in NYC.

And when we look closely at University Prep., we see some interesting and effective innovations, that I hope would transfer to more collective bargaining contracts.  So the “laboratory of innovation” idea that birthed charters, has some real relevance within collective bargaining contracts.

Some schools need a union

I know this is heretical in charter world, but some schools are better off with the balance and professionalism a Union can bring.  I have seen schools that turn over 90-100% of teachers year after year, with grueling schedules, rigid accountability for teachers, but administrators reined free.  Kids suffered.

As I will describe, the context of unions in charters is also different.

Some unions need charters

As a practical matter, charters are a potential growth area for unions, but more importantly, they can bring needed changes.

A couple of years back I was eating with my union homies, and one of them, a national organizer described how their teacher’s union was operating on an industrial model, where it needed to move towards a more professional one.

This is right on.  And in the same way that charters can be laboratories for effective practices in education, the individual nature of charter contracts can lead to experimentation in terms and ways to provide voice, set working conditions and compensation.

The “professional” work day at University Prep.

University Prep. had teachers work a “professional” day, if you didn’t have a teaching assignment you didn’t have to be there.  There was not a set check in time in the morning and a time to leave, with every second meticulously bargained around.  Those time cards, and the idea that work is based on teachers being at the factory for 8 hours a day, that mark the industrial model, were discarded.

Teachers were trusted to do their jobs like professionals (imagine that).  I don’t think there was another unionized school in NYC –out of 1100 that did that.  Teachers loved it and are presumably more effective for it. Teaching every day, and getting up every morning, is grueling.  This was a very simple contractual fix that made everyone’s lives better.

Unions in charters are all about micro bargaining among people that see each other every day.  There are no “excessed” teachers,who are passed on through the system.  And colleagues feel it when their fellow teachers are not pulling their weight, as someone else in the building has to pull more.

Meanwhile the charter deal itself instills a sense of urgency in everyone on the building—if the school is closed, the union is done.  This creates a dynamic where everyone is focused on school performance and meeting the charter goals.

The Biggest Benefit of All

Too much blood is spilt and too much effort is wasted in the charter –union wars.  And it’s stupid, basically the same kids, basically the same staff, basically the same goals just different sets of advocates arguing their camp’s position.

It’s crazy that the Unions in some cases argue that public school kids (in charters) should get less funding.  And similarly the savagery that some of the charter groups have in attacking the unions, and what seems to be sometimes like glee, or at least an “I told you so moment” when a unionized school fails.

All the money spent, pro and anti, the marches for and against.  The fiery speeches, indictments and name calling.  Does the average parent care—I don’t think so, does the average staff care—again I don’t think so.  Families want good schools where kids are treated fairly, and staff want schools where they are supported, can be effective, and are treated fairly.

Neither unionized schools nor non-unionized charters have a monopoly on serving families or treating staff well.  I can show you examples and counter examples in each category.  It’s not about union or non-union.  Those are adult advocate issues.

And this can be the biggest change we could see from more unionized charters, getting everyone focused on quality and equity, rather than some phantom of staff organization or governance model—that the real clients, families and students, generally couldn’t care less about.

What do you think?

One thought on “How Unionized Charters Can Be a Good Thing for Schools and the Union

  1. Would it be possible for charters to hold an auction for labor contracts? In this case unions, including non-teachers’ unions could compete on terms and conditions, and everyone wins, potentially. The winning union gets new members, the school gets a labor model it can sustain. Where is it written that teachers must join NYSUT for example?

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