Can Teachers Unions Bargain for Better — or Fewer — Charter Schools?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 19, 2016.
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In cities across the country, teachers unions have been strategizing ways to broaden the demands they bring to the negotiating table. Organizing under the banner of “bargaining for the common good,” educators and their community allies have started to challenge a legal regime that for too many years left unions solely focused on wages and benefits.

One window of opportunity that teacher unions are exploring is charter authorizing—the process of opening, closing, and monitoring charter schools. Though laws vary from state to state, 90 percent of the nation’s roughly 1,000 charter authorizers are local school districts. (The other 10 percent include statewide boards, independent boards, and nonprofit organizations.) Someone looking to open a charter school would in most cases have to apply to a local school district for permission. If their application were approved, the school district would then be tasked with ensuring that the charter meets academic standards and all other relevant laws and regulations.

In recent years, more charter teachers have started to form unions at their schools. But since most are at-will employees who work on year-to-year contracts, the threat of retaliation presents a serious hurdle to unionization efforts, particularly since the charter sector is generally known for its union animus.

As a result, teachers unions representing educators at traditional public schools have started to explore how they might use their leverage at the bargaining table to make union organizing easier for their charter brethren.

“You can see a pathway when school districts are the authorizers, because the union bargains with school districts as employers, and could put proposals on the table around rules for charter authorization,” says Shaun Richman, a labor writer who directed the American Federation of Teacher’s charter organizing program from 2010 to 2015.

The first local to do this was the Cleveland Teachers Union. By the middle of the last decade, the Cleveland School District had sponsored several non-union charter schools. With a new round of contract negotiations coming up, the local teachers union wanted to figure out how they might insert their voice into their employer’s charter authorizing process. When bargaining began, the union sought the right to talk freely about organizing with teachers in any charter school authorized by their district. Though ultimately unsuccessful in winning this demand, the union did win language in its 2010 contract requiring their school district to remain neutral if teachers at any charter school it authorizes sought to unionize.

This neutrality language has proven useful, according to David Quolke, the Cleveland Teachers Union president. He says that when three Cleveland charter schools organized unions this past year, their anti-union charter operator, I Can, wanted the school district to intervene. “The employer was trying hard to stop the union, but the school district had to stay out of it,” Quolke says.

While his union did not get everything it wanted in 2010, Quolke says its “foot is now in the door” and he can envision pushing for more authorizing concessions in the future.

The Chicago Teachers Union took Cleveland’s efforts one step further in its recent round of collective bargaining. Rather than push for a commitment that their employer—the Chicago Public Schools—remain neutral, the union demanded that the school district require all charter schools it authorizes to remain neutral if their teachers decide to organize.

Chris Baehrend, acting president of ChiACTS, the union representing Chicago charter teachers, says that neutrality agreements make a profound difference for workers. “The main reason that teachers don’t form unions is because they’re afraid—they’re afraid they’ll get fired, or they won’t succeed,” he says. ChiACTS currently represents 32 schools, and roughly 1,000 teachers.

Stephen Lerner, a veteran labor organizer, likens these types of efforts to the Justice for Janitors campaign that he helped lead in the early 1990s. “The whole idea of that campaign was to use our existing base to bargain for neutrality for other folks,” he says. “A major part of the organizing strategy was negotiating where the union was strong for neutrality in other parts of the contract, and for other divisions [of the employer’s company] that were non-union.”

While the Chicago teachers did not win their demand for citywide charter neutrality when they reached an accord with the district last week, they actually won something even more surprising: an agreement to halt charter growth. In the new contract, the Chicago Public Schools agreed to not increase the net number of charter schools or charter school students through 2019, an unprecedented concession.

The United Teachers Los Angeles has gone even further with these contract efforts—bargaining not just for labor rights for charter teachers, but also for greater overall accountability for charter schools. During its last round of contract negotiations in 2014, the Los Angeles teachers union, in partnership with local community groups, called on the Los Angeles Unified School District to ensure that all schools under its purview—district and charter—be held to the same set of transparency, equity, and accountability standards. The union also proposed requiring that before the district opens up any new school, it first must assess what the economic, educational, and communal impact would be on existing schools. (Under California state law, however, school districts are prohibited from considering such factors when reviewing new charter school applications.)

Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of the Los Angeles teachers union, says that although it wasn’t successful in getting these demands codified in their contract (not surprising, in light of the state law), raising the issues catalyzed new and important conversations with their employer. “Our efforts also had an impact on other affiliates across the state,” Caputo-Pearl says. “They read our proposals and are now really thinking about how to introduce similar types of demands.”

It should be noted that not all teacher unions are yet ready to think creatively about their contract negotiations. In an interview with the Prospect, George Jackson, the communications director of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said, “there’s really no advocacy [the union] could do at the bargaining table” around charter authorizing since charter teachers are not directly part of their union.

And not every instance of unions inserting themselves into the charter authorizing process has been so positive. In 2011, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers actually created the nation’s first and only union-backed charter authorizer. The goal was to open innovative charters that elevate teacher voice, and to secure unions a seat at the education reform table. But five years into the experiment, the authorizer, the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, oversees mostly low-performing schools, and only one is unionized. Many rank-and-file public school teachers have also protested their union’s decision to fund charter authorizing.

In addition to bargaining with school districts, unions are also beginning to flex their legislative and lobbying muscles to try and influence the charter authorizing process.

In New Jersey, it’s the state department of education that authorizes charter schools, not local school districts. Marguerite Schroeder, a staffer with the New Jersey Education Association, says her union closely monitors the entire process from start to finish. “We navigate, we scrutinize, we legally request every application for new charter schools that the department of education considers,” she says, adding that her union is prepared to work through all legislative and legal channels to ensure that New Jersey is held accountable for any charter it authorizes. It also works to monitor how and where public funds are spent within the charter sector.

In 2014, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University released a set of national policy recommendations to promote increased charter accountability, transparency, and equity. The recommendations called on charter governing boards to file financial disclosure reports, and to prohibit charters from using registration procedures that directly or indirectly discourage certain students from enrolling. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers came out in strong support of the Annenberg proposals, and have since been advocating for school boards and state legislators to adopt them.

In California, the local unions have lobbied the state legislature for a number of bills inspired by the Annenberg standards, including bills that would require charters to be more financially transparent, and to establish more equitable discipline policies. Though many of these bills have failed to make it through the legislature or have been vetoed by California Governor Jerry Brown, they’ve sparked a larger political discussion in the state around charter regulation. And such efforts haven’t been confined to blue states. In 2015, after a campaign led by parents and the local teachers union, the school board governing the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted in favor of adopting all of the Annenberg standards.

Ultimately there may be legal limits to what unions can bargain over with their school district in matters of charter authorization. Advocates hope, however, that opening up the conversation on the local level through contract negotiations can help to create broader political momentum for legislative change.

But other questions remain. For example, as unions get more involved in the charter authorizing process, and as more charter teachers go union, how willing will unions be to close down failing charters that have unionized staff? The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools recently rescued a scandal-ridden charter from closure at the last minute, and the fact that the school had unionized teachers may have been a factor.

Still, Secky Fascione, the National Education Association’s director of organizing, is optimistic about unions’ ability to positively impact the charter school environment in conjunction with community groups. She sees all these efforts as just new iterations of bargaining for the common good. “I think there is real excitement here,” she says. “There are many community stakeholders who would love to make proposals around charter schools, and we have a real opportunity as unions to open up the process to really get those voices heard.”

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