The Charter Union Story You Missed in CA and Why It Matters

Three facts that will surprise charter supporters and detractors; (1)California has the highest number of unionized charters in the country (2) those numbers have doubled over the last several years while nationally unionized charters have declined and (3) unionized charters have a positive effect on student achievement (at least according to one study).  These were key takeaways from a recent report covered in the 74 that should get more attention.

Beyond the Thunderdome

We have public school wars in Oakland and elsewhere, a thunderdome of sorts where two public school sectors enter but only one is supposed to leave.   While in reality both sectors are here to stay and families benefit from coexistence.  That said, the demonization of charters here has caused folks who otherwise advocate for quality schools to miss a key opportunity in having unions creatively join in the charter discussion rather than battling against it.

I have worked with the unions in NYC on charters, and the AFT invited me to New Orleans to talk unionized charters.  I ran a union school, I led the first charter board to voluntarily unionize in NYC and we incubated the first charter that deliberately supported organization once chartered.   I believe that the folks doing the work often know best and need real voice.  And I have also seen enough idiotic school leaders, charter and otherwise—so I get it.  I understand where the desire comes in some schools for a union.

That said I don’t think importing the current district collective bargaining contracts wholesale makes sense, and it could hurt students and schools.  Instead, the idea of charters as innovators should also apply to unionization.  Where we really rethink what that relationship should look like in the modern era, and where contracts are uniquely responsive to local conditions and family and student needs.

Micro Bargaining Rather than Boilerplate Agreements

We need a lot more micro bargaining where stakeholders (maybe even parents and students) get around the table, agree on goals and a vision and hash out the best way to operate based on local conditions and local needs—instead, we have a lot of boilerplate bargaining—that maybe worked sometime for someone, but chances are it won’t really work for your individual school optimally.

Green Dot Public Schools has done some groundbreaking work here.  They have solid academic numbers in their work in LA, and they have taken the kids and families who were there, undercutting some of the usual charter critiques. I know their NYC school first hand—it’s a top performer, and again an innovator in the contract—by taking out many of the rules, addition by subtraction.

At University Prep Charter High School (a national Blue Ribbon School) staff worked a “professional day.”  If they didn’t have a class or coverage responsibility, they didn’t have to be at school, which practically meant that most staff could sleep in once a week.

If you have ever worked at a school, you know how valuable that is, but where else do you see it?  And it didn’t really cost a dime.

Most schools, we just grind the teachers from breakfast duty to after school, then you come home and are planning and grading—5 days a week, sometimes 6.  It is exhausting.  But it doesn’t have to be.  This is one example but there could be many more, you just won’t find them in a boilerplate.

So can we lower the guns for a minute and talk.  Nobody is really getting it right when it comes to our most vulnerable youth, and we are wasting a lot of energy and bullets on fighting each other when there is real value in collaboration, and real enemies that we should be fighting side by side against.

Hopefully the facts will start to change the fight.

What do you think?

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