Lessons for Charter Schools and Unions on Becoming One

Today feels like validation. For the last four years or so, I’ve been writing about the seemingly contradictory phenomenon of unions organizing within charter schools. Today’s report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (better known as CRPE by education insiders) adds research and national data confirming many of the stories and experiences I’ve seen and been a part of. My overall takeaway is this: Charter schools and teacher unions could learn a lot from each other.

Charter schools are more likely to unionize if their leaders aren’t listening to the concerns of teachers. And when charter schools do unionize, it often looks different from unions within traditional schools. They are less likely to include teacher tenure, for example, but that doesn’t negate the need to create good working conditions within charter schools.

Check out the report for yourself. And see below for excerpts from posts I’ve written over the last few years on unions and charter schools. The most recent was just last month when I took part in unionizing Oakland’s largest charter school organization.

Oakland’s largest charter organization, Education for Change (EFC), voted to recognize a union at the last board meeting.  I was there, and as a member of the Executive Committee I made the motion, which passed unanimously. This can be a good thing for our schools, staff, families, and the City.  Especially if it leads to a truce in Oakland’s ongoing public school wars which have hurt the district, charter schools, and most importantly the Flatland children and families who are desperate for better schools.

February 2019: Will Charter Unionization Help End the Public School Wars in Oakland?

Unions in charters can be different.  I say that not just as a contractual model but really the dynamics in a charter are different.  There is no “excessing” to shuffle a disinvested colleague on to another assignment. And in the small environment of most charters, the failure of one person to do their job really does affect colleagues, and people feel this.  If you are late and don’t cover your homeroom, someone else has to. So when folks were not working out, we honestly did not argue much about it, and the union rep (who was a very conscientious teacher herself) tended to agree on decisions, and squelch the rumor mill that sometimes kicks up as people are asked to leave.

Further, you only have a 5 year charter, so if folks are not getting it done, there will be no jobs for anyone, union or no union, so we are all deeply invested in meeting accountability goals.  So for staff that are interested in staying at the school there are strong incentives to make sure that colleagues are invested and up to the task. The bargaining is not among lawyers in boardrooms, it is among colleagues who work together every day.  And it is really this site based micro bargaining where the site based issues were worked out.

And even at the higher levels, our leadership worked to develop relationships with the Union home office folks, and again, even those discussions were marked by civility and logic.  When our raises, combined with an improved and more costly health plan, threatened to put the school in the red, we worked with the union to freeze raises and tie them more to revenue.  Similarly we listened to complaints about our fairly shoddy (though inexpensive) health coverage, and we went in with the union on their plan. Which while costing more provided much better coverage.  And because it was part of larger risk pool it was cheaper than we could have gotten on our own.

This is not to say that everything was bunnies and rainbows.  The school continued to struggle (turnaround is tough), and has been continually undermined by the authorizer (some would argue because the school was unionized), but it is still there, serving more high needs students than ever, showing more student progress, greater staff retention and family satisfaction, and implementing a true restorative justice program—where suspensions are now among the lowest in the City.  There are still struggles, but the school is a better, more equitable place.

September, 2015: Unions and Charters, Can We Get Along?

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.

February, 2018: The Charter Union Story You Missed in CA and Why It Matters

I am officially agnostic, on charter schools and unions.  Not the combination of the two but each individually. We need to judge charters by their results on both quality and equity and we need to do the same for unions….

When unions fight for better conditions for teachers, I like that.  When they seem to waste public and private resources protecting the weakest links that should be severed, I don’t like that.  So it depends on what you mean by a union.

February, 2016: Judging Charters and Unions on Results

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.

October, 2016: How Unionized Charters Can Be a Good Thing for Schools and the Union


What do you think?

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