Charter schools' worst nightmare: A pro-union movement may change charters forever

A growing number of charter school teachers want to unionize, the American Prospect's Rachel M. Cohen tells Salon

Published July 18, 2015 10:30AM (EDT)

Michelle Rhee                   (Reuters/Hyungwon Kang)
Michelle Rhee (Reuters/Hyungwon Kang)

When you think of charter schools, there are probably a few people and concepts that come to mind: Michelle Rhee, "grit," Bill Gates, Eva Moskowitz, KIPP, etc. And if you happen to think of teachers unions at some point during this education policy reverie, you'll probably have them in the role they're traditionally assigned by the media — as anti-charter and anti-reform. Just like Israelis and Palestinians, Crips and Bloods, Yankees and Red Sox, teachers unions and the charter movement simply don't like each other. That's just the way it is.

But according to a recent piece in the American Prospect by Rachel M. Cohen, the truth of how charters and unions relate to one another is more complicated. It turns out that there are some charter school teachers out there who've started to think a union isn't such a bad idea after all; and their ranks are growing. Whether it's in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago or New York, Cohen shows, the future of education policy is very much in flux. In fact, the day when the financial backers of charters have to decide which they care about more — breaking unions or educating kids — may arrive sooner than you think.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Cohen to discuss her piece, the motivations of charter teachers who are seeking to unionize, and why their success may actually bring charters closer to their historical roots and original mission. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

How widespread are the efforts to unionize among charter teachers?

It’s definitely not the majority. They say 7 percent of all charter school teachers are currently unionized, and half of those were because the state set that up when they created the charter law. For example, in Baltimore, which I didn’t talk about in my piece, all charter school teachers are unionized, but not because they came together and started a union draft like they’re doing in Philadelphia or Chicago, where the state said you have to follow your district's collective bargaining unit.

By no measure is it the majority, but what’s interesting now is that there are fairly larger networks of charter schools starting to do it, and if alliance charter school teachers succeed in L.A. (which is the largest charter school network), then that would impact what other smaller schools do.

What tend to be the pro-union teachers' complaints?

Most charter school teachers work on year-to-year contracts, which does not provide great stability, especially if you’re trying to create a family.

One of the things that I saw was that charter school teachers tended to be younger, and some of the teachers that I spoke with who were in their early 30s were like, “I want to stay at this school, but if I want to get married and have kids there’s no way that I can not know if I have a job in September once May rolls around. I need to either work in a district school or unionize this school, because this whole tenuous working model is not sustainable for the kind of middle-class life I’m trying to build.” So that’s something all workers are trying to figure out how to get for themselves.

There’s definitely also charter school teachers who want to form unions because they think that that’s how they’re going to best serve their kids. Charter school proponents on the political level will say, “We value the voices of teachers; we like having small schools where everybody can get a say.” But, in reality, a lot of teachers don’t feel like they have the voice that their administrators claim they have. Especially in some of the charter school chains that are very rapidly expanding, teachers said to me that all the decisions were coming from bureaucratic offices far away from the classroom, and that they don’t really have a say and are scared to say anything because their positions are already fairly precarious.

Are there any bedrock practices of the charter model that a unionized school couldn't do?

One of the interesting things about that is that charter schools want to innovate, and they worry that their innovations would be stilted by the creation of unions. I think that obscures what’s actually going on, which is that the administrators want the freedom to create whatever policies they want without having to negotiate how they pay teachers.

I spoke with someone, and he articulated the core of the tensions quite well. He said, “look, if KIPP decides that teaching on a Saturday is what’s best for the kids, and that’s going to get the best result, then they should just be able do that without having to go through a teachers union and negotiate and/or pay them more to do so.” I think that’s the core of these issues, which is that you can do all these things, but should you have to actually engage with these workers to make these decisions?

To take a step back, what was the original vision of a charter school?

The original vision was first proposed by the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, in 1988. He gave a speech in Washington, D.C., envisioning this new type of school. It would be independent, smaller, still part of the public school system, still unionized, but certain union regulations would be relaxed so that the school could try and test out new educational practices, and do more experimental things with the hopes that, if something proved effective, they could apply the practices to regular public schools.

A couple of months after the speech, they came up with the name “charter schools” because explorers received charters to explore new land and resources, so that’s how the name stuck. The first charter school was founded in 1992 in Minnesota, and that was unionized. Bear in mind there’s always been debates from the very beginning about the roles unions would play in these schools, but I think it is very much an interesting lost history, since this whole idea was premised with the notion that charter schools would be unionized necessarily.

If teachers didn’t have the job security, or an elevated voice that unions help to provide, then teachers wouldn’t feel comfortable enough in their classrooms to actively take risks and/or try out new things with their students. The fear of losing one’s job can prevent one from trying out new things, so that’s why the original idea of charter schools being unionized was so important.

Why is it that we're at a point now where the idea of a pro-union charter seems oxymoronic — much less that the original vision had unions playing an integral role? What happened between then and now?

A powerful narrative that has developed over the past decade and a half says that the reason we have these great disparities in our education system — huge, growing gaps between the rich and poor; etc. — is in large part because of bad teachers in the classrooms and the teachers unions fighting to keep bad teachers in the classrooms. So both liberals and conservatives have seen charter schools as a way in which they can either weaken the power of teachers unions, or just bypass teachers unions altogether.

And is that basically what charter teachers who are trying to unionize have been told when they've spoken with management?

They don't say it that explicitly. What they say is, in euphemistic terms, “We want to continue to provide the high-quality education, we want to provide what’s best for students, we want to ensure that only high-quality people will be in the classroom,” etc. In the case of L.A., in this large charter school that’s currently unionizing, the school Alliance is trying to point out bad things that United Teachers of Los Angeles has done in the past, so as to discredit the union.

But different schools use different tactics. Most often, from what I’ve seen, the schools will claim things like “We have a very unique culture that we’ve built up here, you’re a part of it, let’s not complicate it with a union that could mess up the special thing we’ve built together.” Or schools might claim that they don't want tension between labor and management--that they want to be partners, with the underlying fear being that unions are going to mess that up.

Speaking of changing relationships, one of the most interesting parts of your report, I thought, concerned the way unions have changed their stance vis-à-vis charters. It sounds like there's been a real adjustment.

There’s definitely been a significant shift for the unions. There was a time, especially in the early 2000s, when there was just a blanket aversion to charter schools because there was this feeling that these schools were trying to weaken the power of teachers unions, and that they were not interested in helping to collaborate in any meaningful way. This is really starting to shift, and it’s true that this shift hasn’t really been reflected in the way the popular media frames the education reform conversations.

Today, I think the unions take an approach that they understand charter schools are not going away, that some charter schools are actually good, but there remains a great lack of oversight and regulation over the bad charter schools. It’s funny, because charter school advocates will claim that traditional public schools are bludgeoned with regulations, and meanwhile, unions sort of watch as charter schools have insufficient levels of oversight. So right now they’re trying to raise awareness for the completely unregulated schools, or for the schools whose regulations are totally insufficient, while trying to push for laws that ensure more transparency and accountability.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that the charter-union movement starts picking up steam. Is there any chance that Wall Street, which has been a massive supporter of charters, will abandon it because of their views on unions?

Yes, I think that’s definitely a possibility. That’s something that various union people said to me. Jesse Sharky, from the Chicago Teacher’s Union, said that right, there’s a lot of businesspeople and entrepreneurs who are very interested in the charter school sector, and if that sector became more heavily unionized, it’s not so clear that suddenly it would be such an interesting or intriguing investment for them to make.

Hopefully that’s not the case, but it’s definitely fair to wonder how the political support will fare, especially since many political backers like charter systems because they’re union-free. So it’s not exactly clear how, if at all, they’re going to change their support if a greater proportion of charter schools unionize.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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