Voices in Education

Educator Solidarities over Competition: Lessons from 2018
The teachers of the Acero School Network, a charter management organization overseeing fifteen schools in Chicago, became the first charter network in history to stage a strike to protest low pay, poor working conditions, overcrowded classrooms, and “sanctuary” protections for the majority Latino population their schools serve.
Joining traditional public educators across six other states in 2018 that have walked out of their schools and held strikes to bemoan similar conditions, these developments indicate an intensifying overlap in grievances for educators in the traditional and charter sectors nationally. Further, they suggest fertile ground for collective action to address the subduing professional realities and antagonism created by competition and school choice that have characterized educational governance for the last two decades.
Charter and traditional school teachers should not only celebrate these developments but also band together to expand their reach through unionization and grassroots organizing. 
First, teachers across institutional types share similar aspirations that can only be realized through collective bargaining. If teachers want to have conversations about compensation, working conditions, and educational policy, unions provide the channel to exercise voice and agency. Acero teachers were part of the charter division of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) that allowed them to negotiate for smaller class sizes, protections for undocumented students, and raises. Also, teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona won similar concessions following their strikes. Collective bargaining forces districts to improve conditions through the demands of teachers, and those demands are rarely recognized without the threat of legal action.
Second, grassroots organizing among charter and traditional neighborhood school teachers catalyzes the transformation of teachers’ unions from the inside out, informing robust political agendas that push union leaders to consider issues that affect the health, stability, and learning conditions of students. The Caucus for Working Educators (WE), a group of teachers, counselors, nurses, and support staff throughout Philadelphia’s traditional and charter networks, formed in 2013 as a response to budget cuts and school closures. Through its growing network, the group has advocated for the “Healthy Schools” initiative along with other organizers to the district, city council, and state to make serious infrastructure investments in Philadelphia’s aging schools. They have also worked horizontally with activist groups in Seattle, New York, and New Jersey to bring Black Lives Matter Week, a social justice–driven curriculum to their schools.
Progressive arms of teachers’ unions have also been forming in other cities like Chicago to advance platforms centering racial justice, restorative practice, immigration reform, and LGBTQ rights. These organizations welcome all educators, centering professional and political concerns across the charter and traditional sectors that educators share. They further counter stereotypes of teachers’ unions as self-interested, obstructionist, and extortionate.
Some may argue that the efficacy of the school choice movement lies in its ability to unshackle charter educators from the obligations of collective bargaining agreements in order to innovate and compete with the traditional sector. My research has shown that while these assumptions are widely held, they are problematically rooted in neoclassical economics and therefore have had unintended consequences when applied to public education. Competition has not resulted in dramatically better student outcomes for charter schools, but rather stagnated pay for charter schools and traditional educators; increased stratification by needs, incomes, and race across charter and traditional neighborhood schools; and created  higher turnover rates, as well as hastened the shuttering of traditional neighborhood schools in cities’ poorest neighborhoods.
I have also found that the threat of closure for traditional neighborhood schools and the weakening of collective bargaining agreements have fueled animosities from traditional neighborhood school educators that see charter schools as poaching their strongest students and then unfairly being measured by the same performance standards. Given a growing body of evidence that charter schools are serving relatively more advantaged populations in relation to those served by neighborhood schools, and that school closures disproportionately affect neighborhood schools serving cities most vulnerable students, tensions between educators in traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools are not unfounded. 
In spite of recent calls for moratoriums on charter school ratification in cities that have seen the most destabilizing impacts of expansion, with nearly 3.2 million students attending nearly seven thousand charter schools nationwide, it is unlikely that the genie will return to the bottle anytime soon. It is therefore incumbent upon educators across the traditional and charter sectors to return to the original vision of charter schools, prior to their co-optation by corporate philanthropy, as “incubator spaces” for innovative teaching methods within the public system.
In order to foster a collaborative environment, a truly “public” system, educators must see their fates as tethered to the fates of all other public educators. This requires active solidarity building that aligns educators’ common political goals and interests. While unionization may be the vehicle for wielding political power, teachers’ grassroots organizing is the substance of a truly progressive movement to reclaim public education.

About the Author: Julia McWilliams is a lecturer in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Compete or Close: Traditional Neighborhood Schools Under Pressure (Harvard Education Press, May 2019).