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Volume 26, Number 1
January/February 2010

Charters and Unions

What’s the future for this unorthodox relationship?


AFT charter school teachers Brian Harris and Emily Mueller look on as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan greets other union members. (Photo: Mike Campbell, courtesy of AFT)

Nearly two years ago, Spanish teacher Emily Mueller was dismayed to learn that her charter high school, Northtown Academy in Chicago, was asking teachers to teach six classes instead of five.

There was no real discussion between teachers and administrators about alternative solutions, according to Mueller. There was no pay increase attached to the increased workload, either. The unilateral, unpaid workload increase “just didn’t seem sustainable,” she says.

But Mueller didn’t want to leave the school, one of three chartered by an organization called Chicago International Charter School and operated by an organization called Civitas Schools. So she and a handful of colleagues did something that only a few charter school teachers have done: they began the long, difficult, but ultimately successful push to join the Illinois Federation of Teachers and negotiate a contract that now represents roughly 140 teachers at the three schools.

Over the past year and a half, unionized charter schools have popped up in several big cities around the country. In several cases such as Mueller’s, charter school teachers have initiated organizing campaigns to address the challenging working conditions, low pay, and top-down management structures of some charter schools. Teachers at four Accelerated School campuses in Los Angeles joined United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) last year. Teachers at KIPP: AMP in Brooklyn, N.Y., voted to join the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). And last September, the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, Mass., began negotiating what will be the first charter-union contract with AFT Massachusetts.

Not all union organizing in charter schools occurs from the bottom up. Some charter operators have insisted on working with unionized teachers from the start. Green Dot Public Schools, a well-known charter school management organization, works with teachers affiliated with the California Teachers Association in Los Angeles and the UFT in New York City. A Chicago-based school management organization called Union Park has recently been approved to open a new, unionized charter school based on the Talent Development model in September 2010.

Some states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Maryland require all charters to be part of a district’s union contract. Other states, like New York and California, have requirements that vary according to school size and development process. New York requires unionization for charter schools that open with more than 250 students. California requires schools that “convert” from district schools to charter status be unionized.
There is no ready agreement on the number of unionized charters among the estimated 5,000 charter schools nationwide. The AFT says it has organized 80 schools. The National Education Association estimates that it works with roughly 200. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says that the total number is somewhere below 500.

Some school reformers and union leaders are looking to unionized charters as the wave of the future. However, many charter school proponents see unionization as no more than a problematic distraction. Whether the Obama administration will take steps to support this hybrid, whether the number of unionized charters will increase, and how well they will perform over time remains to be seen.

A New Path for Charter Schools

For proponents like Green Dot founder Steve Barr, bridging the gap between charter schools and teachers unions is an obvious way to make rapid change without alienating powerful unions. “I don’t think you’re going to change a public education system that’s 100 percent unionized with nonunion labor,” Barr says.

For some labor leaders, unionized charters offer the prospect of increasing union membership in a small but fast-growing sector. Even more important, perhaps, they demonstrate labor’s willingness to innovate. Referring to the Chicago contract covering three charter schools, AFT president Randi Weingarten says, “This contract is a great example of how charter schools can be incubators for innovative reforms and good labor-management practices.”

Weingarten calls unionization a “new path” for charter schools. She speaks frequently about how charter schools should innovate both programmatically and in terms of labor agreements, and indicated at a conference last summer that additional charter-organizing efforts would be under way this year. To house these efforts, she has created a national initiative called the Alliance of Charter Teachers. Most recently, the AFT announced grants to eight teacher unions around the country for what Weingarten calls “entrepreneurial, teacher-driven public education reform.” The Chicago Talent Development High School, the Union Park school, was one of the first grantees.

Officially agnostic on the topic, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—an ardent supporter of charter schools—is thought by some observers to be enthusiastic about the potential benefits of the unionized charter model.

“The model’s perfect for him,” says John Ayers, a longtime charter advocate from Chicago who recently became a vice president and treasurer at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in California. He notes that the model has a commonsense, middle-ground appeal and challenges both charter operators and teachers unions to move beyond the constant warring of the past.

In speeches, Duncan has singled out Green Dot’s efforts to help turn around a massive Los Angeles high school, and he has repeatedly praised teachers unions for taking steps toward innovation and flexibility. In June, Duncan told a conference of charter school advocates, “What distinguishes great charters is not the absence of a labor agreement, but the presence of an educational strategy built around commonsense ideas: more time on task, aligned curricula, high parent involvement, great teacher support, and strong leadership.”

Even private foundations have gotten interested in helping charter schools and unions work together. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and The Joyce Foundation recently joined forces to help develop a model charter contract (see sidebar "Thin Contracts"). Thin Contracts

What is a “thin” contract? There’s no official definition for these relatively brief contracts that have been negotiated between charter school operators and teachers. The contracts vary widely, but there are some general differences and similarities:

Thin contracts usually apply to a single school site or small network of schools. They require teachers to work a professional workday and don’t necessarily include daily start and end times. Salaries can differ based on measures of performance as well as experience and academic qualifications. Employers have to show “just cause” to fire a teacher.

Traditional contracts apply across an entire district. They are generally much longer and more specific. Usually, these contracts detail how much time a teacher has to spend teaching class each day, set a pay scale based on seniority and degrees granted, and provide “due process” protections for teachers against being disciplined or removed from their position. They incorporate state tenure laws.

Both types of contracts include procedures for reporting problems and appealing management decisions. Both are renegotiated at regular intervals and approved by management and teachers.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the AFT Innovation grant program.

Still, efforts to meld charters and unions have had decidedly mixed results.
Charters—and Teachers—Growing Older

In the cases where charter teachers have decided to unionize, the impetus has been to gain more say in how their schools are run and how they are evaluated, as well as in wages and working conditions. Begun 20 years ago, charter schools are growing older—or at least some of their teachers are.

“A lot of charter schools are doing their work on the backs of teachers willing to work their hearts out,” says the University of Chicago’s Timothy Knowles, whose Urban Education Institute manages a handful of charter schools. “Class sizes are big, numbers of classes taught are often excessive, basic working conditions are poor, salaries are low, and benefits are worse than those in the traditional public system.”

At KIPP: AMP, a school for students from fifth through eighth grades that went through a highly publicized organizing process from 2008–2009, the impact of unionization has been subtle but important. There are fewer and more focused meetings than there were before, according to teacher Kashi Nelson, more regular communication from the principal, and more preparation time. “I love my job again,” she says.

Things have also improved for teachers at Chicago’s Northtown Academy. Citing the new contract, which includes an average salary increase of 10 percent and a new, published salary schedule, Mueller notes, “The teachers are smiling a lot more.”

However, some charter school teachers are ambivalent about or even hostile toward teachers unions. Some
teachers who supported the union drives at KIPP: AMP and in Chicago changed their minds midway through the process, feeling that the organizing effort was distracting and divisive. Despite the teachers’ altered views, their schools were organized, and most teachers remained at the schools. Other than KIPP: AMP, there have been no attempts to unionize at other KIPP New York City schools, according to public affairs director Steve Mancini.

Unionized from the Start

While charter school management organizations like KIPP and Civitas have opposed collective bargaining and fought union drives at their schools through legal means, Green Dot schools have been unionized from the start. A longtime Democratic activist whose stepfather was a Teamster, founder Steve Barr feels a strong loyalty to the idea of collective bargaining and insisted on including a union in his model, even though A. J. Duffy, the president of UTLA, wanted nothing to do with negotiating a stripped-down contract at the time (or with Barr, a frequent critic). Barr turned to the California Teachers Association to create a chapter just for Green Dot teachers called Asociación de Maestros Unidos (AMU).

Many of the teachers at Green Dot schools haven’t joined the new union, however, though they are still represented (and pay union dues). Last year when the organization took over management of the troubled Locke High School in Watts, teachers found themselves struggling with 800-student “small” schools and crowded classrooms. Frustrated with the lack of timely response from the school, they turned to the protections in the union contract to file a class-size grievance, forcing the school to hire additional teachers, balance teaching loads, and provide added pay for oversized classes and lost preparation periods.

At the end of the year, over 80 percent of teachers at Locke opted to return, compared to 50 percent in previous years. School safety and student retention rates were also up sharply, though academic results stayed flat. “Many of us wouldn’t have stayed at Locke if we hadn’t been able to get some changes made last year,” says art and drama teacher Monica Mayall, the union representative for the school.

The union continues to play a role in the school’s second year. “Right now, [school officials] are talking about scheduling teacher observations during prep time, which is against the rules,” says Mayall. “But we’re going to find a way so that people can volunteer to do it or the faculty can vote on it.”

Who Needs Whom?

Few charter school proponents other than Barr see unionization as playing a significant role in running a successful school. Many involved with charter schools worry that the union presence will eventually infringe on flexibility and the focus on student achievement. “Stories about the length of Green Dot contracts are instructive,” says the University of Chicago’s Knowles. “Every time they are renegotiated, they get longer.”

While some charter management organizations may position themselves as teacher-friendly and unionize, Knowles predicts that most of them won’t see the long-term benefits of unionization. “The majority of the existing charter operators that end up with contracts will get there more like [Civitas] did,” he says.

Ayers agrees that charter providers won’t be quick to leap at the idea of unionization. He notes that many early charter schools were vehemently anti-union, and some charter school boards are full of business-oriented, anti-union members. “Charter people hate this idea,” he says.

“Charter people come up to me all the time and ask ‘How do we keep the union out?’” says teachers union watchdog Mike Antonucci, who supports nonunionized charter schools. “That’s easy. Keep your employees happy. No happy employee ever said, ‘I wish we had a union.’”

Now that states are required to eliminate caps on the number of charters in order to win a share of the $3.4 billion “Race to the Top” fund, charter school advocates may see even less need to reconsider their stance toward unions.

For their part, some union leaders argue that waivers and school-based agreements make it increasingly possible to adapt a school’s offerings within the traditional district school system. “A lot of time the media makes it sound like there’s no innovation anywhere unless you do drastic things,” says Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

One issue on which there is no disagreement is that unionization isn’t something that can be jammed down charter teachers’ throats. The AFT clearly wants to work with more charter schools, but organizing individual schools is expensive and the union may or may not find many takers.

Back in Chicago, Mueller and the CEO of the charter school organization that runs her school and two others recently signed off on the new 54-page contract. Management challenged the initial organizing effort and forced teachers to repeat the voting process. But it also reversed itself on the six-class workload even before negotiations were begun. Overall retention rates for teachers were higher than in the past.

“Part of it’s the economy,” says Mueller, who led the negotiations and is running for union president. “But a lot of people want to see how this plays out.”

Alexander Russo spent 2008–2009 as a Spencer Education Fellow at Columbia University’s Journalism School.

For Further Information

For Further Information

AFT Alliance of Charter School Teachers and Staff

Chicago Talent Development High School

S. Dillon. “As Charter Schools Unionize, Many Debate Effect,” New York Times, July 26, 2009.

Education Sector. “Growing Pains: Scaling Up the Nation’s Best Charter Schools.” November 24, 2009.

National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, “Teacher Leadership in Public Charter Schools.” October 20, 2008.

NEA page on charter schools