We’ve Considered Lots of Other Innovative Ideas. Why Not Unionized Charters, Too?

Nov 30, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Scott Pearson

Oakland blogger Dirk Tillotson wrote this provocative piece suggesting that unions and charters could actually be good for each other. Currently, about 12 percent of America’s 6,700 charter schools are unionized. Most teachers unions would like to see more of them become unionized. We invited several people to react to Dirk’s piece and share their thoughts on whether unionizing charters will be good for kids.
  Most charter leaders look at the prospect of a unionized workforce with horror. Work rules, seniority-based placement, and onerous due process all are at odds with the charter model of flexibility, nimbleness, and a single-minded focus on kids’ learning. But I've seen it work differently. Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles embraced unions from the outset, and negotiated a thin union contract appropriate for a charter school’s way of operating. Principals have substantial control over school assignments while respecting teacher input. Work rules are minimal and Green Dot teachers go the extra mile just like at non-union charters. Pay is higher by about 5-10 percent, there are due process provisions that make it hard to fire a teacher for no reason, and there are steps to give teachers a second chance. But according to Green Dot CEO Marco Petruzzi, these are not overly burdensome and as often lead to struggling teachers gaining their footing as they do to a teacher exit. There's no question that a Green Dot principal has some greater constraints than at a non-union charter, but that principal benefits as well.

How Charter Schools Can Benefit From Unions

First, by providing an organized way for teachers to express themselves, the union helps ensure that Green Dot management is aware of and can respond to teacher concerns. The result is better HR practices and ultimately lower teacher attrition. Teacher attrition is a major issue at charter schools. At some charter schools in Washington, D.C., where I run the sole charter authorizer, turnover exceeds 50 percent. Charter leaders constantly search for ways to keep teachers longer. Might a good union contract reduce attrition and lead to a more seasoned and stable teaching force? Second, unionizing can make it easier to hire teachers. Many charter schools struggle to hire more experienced teachers. Pay and benefits are part of this issue—charters receive lower funding and struggle to match district pay scales. But experienced teachers often seek a stable workforce, and may be attracted to a unionized school. At the other end of the scale, many charters recruit teachers right out of college or grad school. A wrongheaded and pernicious narrative has spread across campuses that charter schools are “corporate privatizers.” Just recently, a talented college senior told me she was considering turning down an offer from one of the country’s best charter networks because “Black Lives Matter opposes charter schools.” It’s sad, but what better way to appeal to idealistic, progressive young people than to wear the union label? Finally, unions can benefit charter schools with their community and political relations. In some jurisdictions, it might be easier for a unionized school to win a charter, or approval to expand, because many of the traditional opponents will stay silent, or be supporters. In Los Angeles, unions, including non-teachers unions like the SEIU, help Green Dot recruit new students. And unions provide connections to communities and political groups that most charter schools could never avail themselves of. I’ll agree that for many, perhaps most charter schools, unionizing does not make sense. And having a union forced on you through a hostile organizing drive is probably never a good thing for a school. But chartering is in part about bringing a diversity of approaches to improving public schools. Working with unions is surely one viable, even attractive, approach. Of the hundreds of new charter applications received by the DC Public Charter School Board over the past 20 years, not one has been from an applicant proposing from the start to be unionized. We’ve considered lots of other innovative ideas. Why not this one?

Scott Pearson

Scott Pearson is the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB). Since joining DC PCSB in 2012, Pearson has implemented significant reforms in how the Board approves and oversees charter schools, making it a national model for charter school authorizing. Under Pearson’s leadership, DC PCSB has pioneered new strategies, tough and rigorous oversight and best practices that other authorizers around the nation are adopting. Previously, Pearson served in the Obama Administration as the deputy of the office of innovation and improvement for the U.S. Department of Education. Also, he co-founded Leadership Public Schools, a network of college-prep public charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. Pearson has a long career in business. At America Online, he was responsible for acquisitions and strategic planning as the company’s vice president for corporate development. At Bain and Company, Pearson provided strategic management consulting services to clients in education, healthcare, media, and aviation. He currently is the board chair of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Pearson holds a bachelor of arts in history from Wesleyan University, a master's in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a master's in business administration from the Harvard Business School.

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