Over the years, charter proponents decided that not having unions was vital to their success perhaps because a non-unionized charter school has far greater control over the hiring and firing of teachers. With that in mind, it is hard to imagine a unionized charter school that retains control over its staffing. But it does not have to be that way. Charter schools can benefit from teachers unionizing. Charter schools suffer from the very real perception that they demand longer hours and offer lower wages, resulting in less experienced teachers and higher turnover rates than traditional public schools. While more experience doesn’t always mean better teachers, these data hurt charter schools’ ability to compete for talent. Teachers unions might help charter schools thrive by mitigating these negative perceptions. And now, based on the outcome of the recent election, charters might do well to seize the opportunity to unionize. President-elect Trump represents an odd marriage between populist economic appeals and the more traditional Republican anti-labor position. At charter schools, it may be possible to reconcile these seemingly contradictory stances. Teachers unions present an opportunity for Trump to combine his sweeping appeals to the anxieties felt by many working-class Americans with one of his only articulated education policies: school choice. Even though teachers unions have been under attack and membership is declining, there nevertheless continues to be a debate about whether charter school teachers should be able to unionize.
The Right to Organize
Labor should always have the right to organize. Prohibiting labor unions disempowers employees and disassociates them from their own professions. These are bad things, but that is not to say that teachers unions, in their current form, are doing everything right. On the contrary, they need to change how they operate. Teachers unions tend to engage on every education issue whether it affects teachers or not, which can create tension and impede reform. A more effective union would instead focus on issues directly related to what most impacts student learning. Charter schools present an opportunity to build new unions that work better for teachers and students. Charter schools first started with the goal of infusing innovation into education and breaking free of the bureaucratic nature of school systems. The belief was that schools were being stifled and were unable to make the changes necessary to help students learn. But since their beginning, charters have been entangled with the nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). In fact, the nation’s first charter school was founded under the vision of the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker. It was unionized.
The Modern Teachers Union
Charter schools should experiment with new union agreements that focus on pressing issues, such as working conditions, the standards to which teachers are held, and curricula rather than squabbling over broad policies. This is a key piece of professionalizing teaching: Giving teachers greater influence in defining their jobs. This kind of union could be good for teachers and students. The union at Green Dot Public Schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District is an example of how a charter school can help create a more modern teachers union. One key to its success was rethinking the standard contract. Unlike the typically bulky contracts common with the AFT and NEA, the Green Dot union contract is narrowly focused on the core tenets of teaching. The union contract for Green Dot teachers doesn't dictate the number of minutes a teacher can work in a school day or the number of days in a school year. The contract also does not offer tenure or seniority preferences. Green Dot found that teachers are willing to work with fewer job guarantees in exchange for a more professional day and higher pay. These types of contracts allow teachers to have a say in how their schools are run without creating conflict between the union and the reforms schools want to make to support student achievement.
Avoiding AFT and NEA
But new charter school unions should avoid the AFT and NEA as both unions have the recurring problem of pitting teachers’ interests against students’ interests. Take, for example, the ongoing fight about how the federal government should hold school districts accountable for making sure that low-income students get their fair share of resources. Teachers unions have fought tooth and nail against strong regulation that would ensure that low-income students get at least as much funding as more affluent students. Why? Because the provision might mean that some teachers could be transferred from jobs at affluent schools into more challenging ones. Forming unions without the influence of the NEA and AFT won’t be easy. Although only about 7 percent of all charter school teachers are unionized, the majority of them are affiliated with the NEA or the AFT. Trump’s election has likely weakened the NEA and AFT and opened the door for charters to take up the cause of a “school choice labor movement.” While it is unlikely that Trump will own this fight, the good news is he doesn’t have to. Charter schools can make these changes on their own. They can work with their faculty to construct a union that benefits teachers and students.
Photo of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaking at a rally courtesy of Scranton-Times Tribune.
Max Marchitello is a senior analyst with Bellwether Education Partners in the policy and thought leadership practice area.
Prior to joining Bellwether in June 2016, Max worked as a policy analyst on the K-12 education policy team at the Center for American Progress, where he focused on standards, accountability, and school finance. Before that, Max was the inaugural William L. Taylor Fellow at ...