More public charter schools are unionizing. I
predicted this a while back in New Orleans, but we are seeing it in Oakland, too. An
article in Oakland magazine highlighted a number of East Bay charter schools where teachers are organizing. And while there are some sweaty palms and gnashing of teeth, this may not be a bad thing, and may be a good one. Charters and unions are often seen as diametrically opposed. This isn’t really an accurate history since one of the
philosophical architects of the “charter school” was Albert Shanker, but it’s a current rhetorical reality. On one side critics wonder whether unions will undermine charter school autonomy and lower standards, and on the other advocates see unionization as a way to ensure teacher voice and staffing stability necessary to maintain high quality. The truth is somewhere in between, and like most charter issues really depends on how local communities play it out. I have seen the good and the bad. I have led a unionized charter and worked with several others. And while there is some self-satisfied snickering in the dickier wing of the so-called charter movement when unionized schools struggle, there often isn’t a similar recognition of high-performing unionized models—like the continuing success and recent
National Blue Ribbon Award winner University Prep Charter High School in New York City.
Why Some Charter Schools Need a Union
I know this is heretical in the charter world, but some schools are better off with the balance and professionalism a union can bring. I have seen schools with a 90-100 percent teacher turnover rate, year after year, due to grueling schedules and rigid accountability, while administrators reined free. In these situations kids always suffer. As a practical matter, charters are a potential growth area for unions, but more importantly, they can bring needed changes. A couple of years back I was eating with my union homies, and one of whom is a national organizer described how their teachers union was operating on an industrial model, when it needed to move towards a more professional one. This is right on. In the same way that charters can be laboratories for effective practices in education, the individual nature of charter contracts can lead to experimentation in terms and ways to provide voice, set working conditions and compensation.
The “Professional” Work Day at University Prep
University Prep serves as a model of what a teacher “professional” day can look like. Rather than patterning after the industrial model and monitoring teacher time cards, teachers were trusted to do their jobs like professionals (imagine that). And if you didn’t have a teaching assignment, you didn’t have to be there. I don’t think there was another unionized school in New York City out of the 1,100 that did that. Teachers loved it and are presumably more effective for it. Teaching every day and getting up every morning is grueling. This was a very simple contractual fix that made everyone’s lives better. Unions in charters are all about micro bargaining among people that see each other every day. There are no “excessed” teachers who are passed on through the system and colleagues feel it when their fellow teachers are not pulling their weight, as someone else in the building has to pull more. Meanwhile the charter deal itself instills a sense of urgency in everyone—if the school is closed, the union is done. This creates a dynamic where everyone is focused on school performance and meeting the charter goals.
The Biggest Benefit of All
Too much blood is spilt and too much effort is wasted in the charter-union wars and it’s stupid. We're basically arguing over the same kids, the same staff, and the same goals. We're all just advocates coming from a different camp. It’s crazy that unions, in some cases, argue that public school kids (in charters) should get less funding. And similarly the savagery that some charter groups have in attacking the unions, and what seems to be sometimes like glee, or at least an “I told you so moment,” when a unionized school fails. With all the money spent (pro and anti), the marches for and against, the fiery speeches, indictments and name calling, does the average parent even care? I don’t think so. Does the average staff member care? Again, I don’t think so. Families want good schools where kids are treated fairly, and staff want schools where they are supported, can be effective, and are treated fairly. Neither unionized schools nor non-unionized charters have a monopoly on serving families or treating staff well. I can show you examples and counter examples in each category. It’s not about union or non-union, those are adult advocate issues. This can be the biggest change we see from more unionized charters, getting everyone focused on quality and equity, rather than some phantom staff organization or governance model—that the real clients, families and students, generally couldn’t care less about.
An earlier version of this post appeared on Great School Voices.
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his ...