Charters and Unions, Can We Get Along?

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As a charter school board chair it was a jarring call.  “The teachers are unionizing, they have the votes” the school leader’s voice rattled on the other end.  This call would start a long journey, that would change some of my thinking on unionized charters, and I hope eventually change the minds of the union as well.

Charters and unions are pitted as natural enemies in the public debate.  The unions typically call for more restrictions on charter approvals, funding, and access to public buildings, while the charters and their supporters, typically rail against the unions and the perceived abuses that fall on the heads of children.

Unionized charters are increasing throughout the US and the East Bay has recently seen a few successful organizing efforts, with the California Teachers’ Association explicitly identifying charter organizing as a goal, it’s probably time to rethink this narrative and whether it makes sense.

But back to the story, my school was in trouble.  It had seen almost all of its teachers turn over each of the last 2 years, had the highest suspension rate of any charter and had a similarly high attrition rate.  Plus the situation at the site was very challenging.

Teachers were in revolt, voting a previously fired teacher as “teacher of the month” and subgroups of teachers were getting “sick” right before the 6 AM deadline to call in.  Substitutes were filling classes, and honestly it was not a good place for kids.  Rather than going through a protracted battle with the Union, we voluntarily recognized them, and started to negotiate terms.

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.

One final point, this has been more about how the Union helped change the school.  I hope that over time more unionized charters will also help change the union.  Organized charter teachers are union members, and at some point, the anti-charter wing of the union will have to answer to this growing constituency.

Several years back, Renaissance Charter in Queens (a unionized school) picketed in front of the UFT offices over the union’s opposing a charter funding increases.  As we get more members, these debates won’t be a small minority outside, but a growing plurality inside, which over time will fight for the resources and conditions that all teachers need to be successful. Rather than the current charter- anti charter, union- anti union narrative, which does nothing to improve schools or the profession, we will finally start to have the discussions that matter about how we can deliver the quality of education that students deserve to those who for too long have been left wanting.

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