Originally published in The American Prospect on April 26, 2016.
Earlier this month, teachers at Lusher Charter School, an arts-based K-12 school in New Orleans, went public with their intent to unionize. Sixty percent of teachers, teacher assistants, and other Lusher staff signed a petition in support, but over the weekend the Lusher board voted 6–5 against recognizing their union. Now the teachers will ask the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election.
If the teachers prevail, Lusher would become the third charter school to unionize in New Orleans, the city with the highest density of charter schools in the country. The first two—Benjamin Franklin High School and Morris Jeff Community School—formed their unions last year. Ben Franklin staff signed the first collective-bargaining agreement for New Orleans teachers since Hurricane Katrina.
Lusher teachers began organizing in secret about a year ago. They waited until they had a majority of teachers in support before they went public, they explain, because they worried they’d lose their jobs or face other negative consequences unless most of the teaching staff was with them.
“I’ve been in a union pretty much all my career and I think it’s a great way to give voice to teachers, and a great asset to a school,” says Julie Sanders, a Lusher social science teacher. This is Sanders’s second year at Lusher, and her 17th year teaching in Louisiana public schools.
Since going public, Lusher teachers have been working to explain to parents and community members why they feel a union is right for them. Some parents wondered if collective bargaining would disrupt Lusher’s unique school culture, or if students’ educations would somehow be harmed. Unionized educators at Ben Franklin and Morris Jeff have also been helping to assuage the concerns of Lusher parents by telling them what having a union has meant for their schools.
Michael Masterson, a teacher who serves as a union representative at Ben Franklin, attended a Lusher community meeting last week to share his experience. “When someone says there are teachers who may have been tricked into agreeing to a union, or someone else says this is going to hurt kids,” Masterson says, “I can raise my hand and say, well, at Ben Franklin we also had people who were really worried about unionizing and it’s turned out okay, the kids are fine, our fundraising is actually up, our applications are steady, nothing bad has happened, and things have been calm.”
Indeed, U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Ben Franklin as the 53rd-best public high school in the United States, and the nation’s 15th-best charter. Ben Franklin’s rankings actually went up 27 spots over the past year.
Lusher is also considered one of the best schools in the state, and Morris Jeff has received national recognition for its approach to creating a diverse student body. This has led some people to wonder why it’s New Orleans’s top schools that are opting to unionize, not others.
Peter Cook, a vocal education reformer based in New Orleans, wrote that it is “apparent that the AFT and its state and local affiliates have been quietly lurking on the sidelines looking for opportunities to eat the city’s charter schools, presumably in an effort to eat away at the city’s reforms from the inside out.” Noting that the American Federation of Teachers has invested nearly half a million dollars into New Orleans charter organizing over the past year, Cook wrote that “we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking” the union wouldn’t ruin all the progress reformers have achieved “if we gave them the opportunity to do so.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, said in a statement to The American Prospect that the AFT is excited that three New Orleans charter schools “have formed unions and want contracts that give them a voice on the job, resources for their students and treat them fairly.” The AFT currently represents 225 charter schools in 15 states, and Weingarten says “we’re working with educators at other charters in the Crescent City and across the country who want a voice at their school.”
Masterson told the Prospect that “there are definitely other schools” in New Orleans that are organizing unions, but none of them are public yet.
When asked why they think it’s been the more elite, high-performing charter schools that have unionized in New Orleans, both Masterson and Sanders say they believe the stability at their schools plays a significant role.
“Schools with teachers that are stable with their employment are going to be the first to unionize,” says Masterson. “It’s not that the elite schools get to have a union and others don’t. It’s that stability is absolutely key to getting a majority, and having people feel comfortable to come together and not be scared.”
Schools with high teacher turnover—a condition that describes many New Orleans charter schools—can be difficult places to organize unions. “If teachers start having conversations with each other about unionizing, but the next year half the teachers are gone, then that process breaks down more easily,” Masterson says. Other charters, he adds, might be filled with teachers who are not necessarily looking to stay in the profession beyond a couple years, which can make it harder to motivate people to go through the unionization process.
Sanders notes that Lusher has far less turnover year to year than some other charters in New Orleans. She points to Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania education researcher who has found that one of the main factors influencing whether teachers stay at or leave a school is how much voice they have in making decisions that affect their job. Increasing teacher voice, job security, and transparency, Sanders believes, will help to keep her school stable and strong.
“We’re trying to be proactive here; the union doesn’t come out of anger or spite,” she explains. “This is just teachers coming to together saying, ‘What would it take to attract and retain the best people?’”