Steve Bannon Tried to Recruit Teachers Union to Trump’s Agenda While in White House

Originally published in The Intercept with Ryan Grim on November 1, 2017.
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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten met one-on-one with then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon back in March, following the announcement of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts and plan to craft a $1 trillion infrastructure package. The Intercept learned of the meeting, which has not been previously reported, independent of Weingarten or Bannon. It was instigated through a mutual friend and appeared to be part of Bannon’s effort to realign the parties, according to Weingarten.

“Look, I will meet with virtually anyone to make our case, and particularly in that moment, I was very, very concerned about the budget that would decimate public education,” Weingarten said. “I wanted it to be a real meeting, I didn’t want it to be a photo-op, so I insisted that the meeting didn’t happen at the White House.”

Weingarten didn’t take notes at the meeting, which was held at a Washington restaurant, but told The Intercept she and Bannon talked about “education, infrastructure, immigrants, bigotry and hate, budget cuts … [and] about a lot of different things.”

She came away a bit shook. “I came out of that conversation saying that this was a formidable adversary,” she said.

He was looking, Weingarten said, for some common ground that could assist him in realigning the two parties, his long-term goal in politics.“I think he sees the world as working people versus elites. And on some level, he’s thought about educators as working-class folks. But what he doesn’t do is think about the other side of educators, as people who fiercely believe in equality and inclusion. It isn’t an either/or philosophy. The [Martin Luther] King philosophy of jobs and justice is not the Bannon philosophy, let’s put it that way,” she said. “He’s trying to figure out where the friction is, and how to change the alignment. I think that’s really what he was trying to do.”

Hearing Bannon attack elites, including the types of hedge fund Democrats who fund the charter school movement, in the same way she would, was surreal. “He hates crony capitalism,” Weingarten said. “The same kinds of things [we say], you could hear out of his mouth, and that’s why it’s so — you sit there in a surreal way, saying, ‘How can you sit right next to all these elites?’”

Since the election, Weingarten has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders within Democratic circles to resist Trump’s agenda – regularly speaking out against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, deportation threats, budget cuts, and attacks on the Affordable Care Act. She was one of the first Hillary Clinton allies to endorse the Bernie Sanders-backed Keith Ellison in his race for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Less than two weeks after the election, Weingarten and Maureen Costello of the Southern Poverty Law Center sent an open letter to the president-elect, signed by 100 other organizations, calling on him to forcefully denounce hate. “While you spoke against bullying, intimidation and hate crimes in your ‘60 Minutes’ interview, the appointment of ‘alt-right’ hero Steve Bannon as your chief strategist — which has been cheered by the Ku Klux Klan, the American Renaissance and other white supremacist groups — sends the exact opposite message,” they wrote.

Bannon’s embrace of the “alt-right” movement has at once propelled his rise and put a ceiling on it. It took him from obscurity to the White House and now to the head of a rebel conservative movement. But his ability to realign the parties is hampered by those more noxious elements of his coalition. It was reportedly Bannon, for instance, who urged Trump to not condemn white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, even after one of them allegedly killed a counterprotester with his car. That makes Bannon’s hunt for allies among labor unions and within the black and brown working class that much harder.

“This is one smart guy,” Weingarten said, “but I was pretty clear with him about my criticism of the white nationalism philosophy.” For Weingarten, who is Jewish and a lesbian, Bannon’s “alt-right” politics are more than an abstract threat. Indeed, in a typical White House, a labor leader would not ask to have a meeting outside the White House and then say nothing about it for six months.

In August, just days before he was fired (or resigned) from Trump’s administration, Bannon called Robert Kuttner, co-editor of liberal magazine American Prospect, to talk about a range of issues, including trade and identity politics. Kuttner published a summary of their conversation, remarking that he left “with a sense both of [Bannon’s] savvy and his recklessness.”

Weingarten came away with the same impression: “Let me say it this way: Kuttner’s download about their meeting was not surprising to me in the least.”

At the time of the meeting, the Trump administration had proposed slashing the federal education budget by 13.5 percent, a figure that would amount to more than $9 billion in cuts. The White House also proposedcutting Medicaid by $800 billion, threatening school districts with fundingthey use to provide health and special education services.

“I saw that meeting as my doing my job of trying to find a way to convey, in any way I could, that the public and even his voters had fierce opposition to the education cuts,” she said, adding that she told Bannon their polling showed half of Trump’s voters opposed his cuts.

Bannon, meanwhile, was working hard to build a coalition to push through an infrastructure deal, as well as drive a wedge through organized labor’s longstanding support for the Democratic Party. In January, just three days after Trump’s inauguration, Trump invited five union leaders to the White House to discuss trade and infrastructure spending. Earlier that same day, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in an executive order that drew praise from the union leaders he was hosting. Both Teamsters President Jim Hoffa and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who were not at the meeting, also released statements applauding Trump’s move.

The AFT is a key affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country, and the White House may have recognized that Weingarten could present problems for their economic agenda. On March 13, three days before the administration’s proposed budget cuts were announced, Axios published a piece describing how the teachers union leader could complicate Trump’s infrastructure plans, because the AFT has sizable pension investments wrapped up in private equity, and the White House was hoping to leverage private equity to help fund the infrastructure package. “Weingarten doesn’t control the pension money but she’s got a substantial bully pulpit,” the Axios article said, adding that she “also holds a lot of political sway at the local and state levels, which matters because more infrastructure spending is currently financed via the municipal bond market.”

The AFT was the first labor union to endorse Clinton in the 2016 election, months earlier than other unions, including the National Education Association. The AFT represents 1.7 million teachers, paraprofessionals, higher education faculty, and health care workers, among others.

Weingarten said she ultimately viewed the encounter as an opportunity to make her case for public education. “If you are the president of the union and you’re fighting fiercely to get budget restorations and to not have a dismantlement of public education or of higher education and the administration asks to – or it’s made clear to you that they want to meet – you meet,” she said. “You don’t not meet. You meet.”

In addition to the open letter sent to the Trump in November 2016, Weingarten sent another letter to the White House — which has not been previously reported — this past July. In it, she emphatically lays out the AFT’s concerns about how the president’s budget plans would impact schools, writing that she hopes Trump “can find time to discuss these issues” with her, as well as ways to strengthen public education.

Weingarten told The Intercept this meeting with Trump has not happened. Bannon declined to comment on the meeting.

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Under Trump, Liberals Rediscover School Segregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 11, 2017.
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At the American Federation of Teachers’ biannual TEACH conference in July, union president Randi Weingarten gave a provocative speech about school choice, privatization, and Donald Trump’s secretary of education. “Betsy DeVos is a public school denier, denying the good in our public schools and their foundational place in our democracy,” Weingarten declared. “Her record back in Michigan, and now in Washington, makes it clear that she is the most anti–public education secretary of education ever.”

But it was Weingarten’s remarks about choice and segregation that ultimately drew the most fire: She highlighted politicians who had used school choice as a way to resist integration following Brown v. Board of Education; she argued that the use of private school vouchers increases racial and economic segregation; and she emphasized that privatization, “coupled with disinvestment, are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

Her speech came on the heels of a new Center for American Progress report, entitled “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers,” which presented similar historical arguments. CAP and the AFT—liberal institutions that sparred over education reform during the Obama years—held a joint event on the report the week before, emphasizing that voucher programs generally benefit the most advantaged students, lead to increasingly economically segregated schools, and divert needed resources from public education. With Trump in the White House, teachers unions and the influential liberal think tank have apparently found some common ground.

The backlash from conservatives and education reformers was swift and fierce. TheWall Street Journal editorial board argued that Weingarten’s speech demonstrated that she “recognizes that the public-school monopoly her union backs is now under siege, morally and politically, for its failure to educate children, especially minority children.” Rick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, called CAP’s report “misguided, misleading and historically inaccurate.” And Peter Cunningham, who runs an education reform advocacy group, wrote in response that Weingarten was just projecting the flaws of traditional public schools and unions onto her opponents.

While many of these critics have long championed dismantling much of the public sector, there is something conspicuous about American liberalism’s newfound focus on school segregation.

Though CAP and teachers unions regularly speak about educational “equity,” it’s no secret that neither have been very vocal about school segregation in the past few decades. CAP, which strongly touted charter schools during the Obama years, had nary a word to say then about charters’ impact on racial and economic isolation. Even now, as CAP takes a new outspoken stand on private school choice and segregation, it has stayed silent on the segregative risks of chartering.

The relationship between teachers unions and desegregation efforts has been complicated, too.

In some respects, teachers unions served as leaders for the pro-integration liberal establishment during the years following Brown v. Board. Historian Jonna Pereillo traces these dynamics in her book Uncivil Rights. Teachers unions joined forces with civil rights activists to push for integrated schools, reduced class sizes, increased health and social services, and improved school facilities. Charles Cogen, who served as the president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers between 1960 and 1964, and then as AFT president from 1964 to 1968, took strong stances in support of rezoning and school integration. Pereillo notes that Cogen pushed his union “to fight the tendency of many Northern liberals to see both sides of the integration debate,” emphasizing that liberal teachers should “stand by a forthright and consistent decision” to push for integrated schools. The UFT’s highest ranking black officer, Richard Parrish, also filed an amicus curiae in the Brown caseand the AFT later expelled some Southern locals that refused to cooperate with the Supreme Court’s decision.

But while unions backed efforts to integrate and equalize public schools, they generally opposed initiatives that would have required transferring educators into schools they didn’t want to work in. Focused on the unequal work environments between black and white schools, unions argued that to transfer teachers against their will would represent yet another example of teachers’ lack of agency over their professional lives.

Put differently, the AFT and its affiliates played an important role pushing for integration, but when teachers were asked to make the same sacrifices as bused students, unions pushed back, firmly asserting that working conditions in black schools would have to be improved first.

By the late 1960s, many black parents grew increasingly frustrated with the teachers unions’ stance—one they felt was cowardly and racist, and an excuse to avoid serving their children. Many also grew increasingly disillusioned that public schools would ever actually integrate, and, as part of an ideological and strategic shift away from integration to black power, they began pushing for greater decision-making power over their local segregated schools, including who should be allowed to teach, and what subjects educators should be allowed to teach. Teachers, in turn, balked at having their job requirements dictated to them by non-educators, internalizing it as yet another sign that they lacked agency over their professional lives.

And as the teachers-union movement grew—UFT membership, for instance, soared 66 percent between 1965 and 1968—thousands of the newer members proved to be more conservative in political orientation. “Unionists who had once enacted progressive social and political works through their unions now found themselves at odds with a growing number of new members who wanted little to do with civil rights projects,” Pereillo writes about the period.

In the 1970s and 1980s, court decisions that mandated busing for integrational purposes became an explosive issue for many white parents of school-age children. In such presumably liberal bastions as Boston and Los Angeles, busing opponents won elections to school boards and other public offices, at times shifting public discourse and policy well to the right, and not only on education issues. The fierce political opposition to so-called “forced busing” led much of the liberal community, including teachers unions, to turn its attention, resources, and political capital elsewhere. Activists within the African-American community also began to focus less on integration and more on issues such as funding disparities and school discipline. While school desegregation had always been controversial, the busing backlash transformed it into a third-rail issue.

But beginning in 2014, issues of racial justice began to re-enter liberal rhetoric in a more overt way. Following a wave of high-profile police shootings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the public started to grapple more openly with the legacies and realities of American racism. Teachers unions were not immune to this reckoning.

In the summer of 2015, at the National Education Association’s annual meeting, members voted on a historic new resolution to fight institutional racism, which they defined as “the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” That same summer, the AFT formed its own Task Force on Racial Equity to outline how the union could move schools away from zero-tolerance policies, reform discipline practices, and create more supportive environments for young black men.

Yet despite powerful new cases against segregation from a diverse set of thinkers—including writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and researchers like Raj Chetty—neither the AFT nor the NEA had yet to tackle segregation head on, even with their increased focus on issues of race and discrimination. And elsewhere in the liberal community, fears of provoking more white backlash in a nation where white nationalism was on the rise put a damper still on discussions of desegregation.

This tension was illustrated last summer, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when I had the opportunity to interview NEA President Lily Garciaabout her views on education policy.

Rachel Cohen: There’s been a renewed national discussion around school integration since the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education two years ago. School segregation was notably absent from the Democratic Party’s K–12 platform. Why isn’t school segregation getting more attention, and do you think the NEA could play a bigger role in pushing desegregation forward?

Lily Garcia: If you take a look at the most highly segregated schools, if you’re looking at all Latino kids, or all African American kids, then you’re mostly looking at charter schools. Poor communities usually end up being described as “poor, minority” communities. Why do those words go together? Why do those two adjectives have to describe the same communities? You can’t just treat the school. You have to treat the entire community. You have to treat poverty.

Integrating schools will not cure the poverty that affects those students. What they’ve done to integrate schools in some places where I’ve been is that they’ve closed down the school in the black neighborhood, and put those kids on a bus, and shipped them for an hour to the white school. They usually broke up the community so that you wouldn’t have a majority-minority school. We’ve seen [integration] done so poorly. What we really want to focus on is equity.

Cohen: Do you draw a distinction between the movement to integrate schools and equity?

Garcia: When you talk about school integration, there’s so much more than let’s just have black, brown, and white children sit together in the same classroom. You can do that simply by assigning kids to different schools. But why are there deep pockets of poverty where black and brown children live? You have to be talking about the roots of what’s going on.

Garcia’s responses were emblematic of the union’s fraught position. They expressed an obvious concern with questions of racial justice, broadly defined, but a resistance to engaging the specific, narrower question of racial segregation. Indeed, Garcia’s criticism of busing, and especially her dismissal of integration as “hav[ing] black, brown, and white children sit together in the same classroom,” might strike civil rights advocates as akin to the talking points deployed by conservative defenders of segregation. This language is not unusual in certain education reform circles, but less common coming from a more progressive organization. And while AFT President Randi Weingarten had spoken more supportively about integration efforts than her NEA counterpart, she too had avoided directly answering questions about her union’s role in addressing segregation, and acknowledged that busing opposition has made integration advocacy difficult. As recently as last year, almost no one in the liberal establishment seemed inclined to tackle school segregation head on

Until now.

There is no question that the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education has created a new political landscape for liberal organizations, including on the issue of school integration. The attacks on the Trump administration’s school choice agenda as segregationist have both reflected and led to a wave of liberal concern over segregation.

Over the past six months, the focus of liberals’ education policies has changed. DeVos was rightly skewered in February when she praised leaders of historically black colleges and universities for being the “real pioneers of school choice,” failing to recognize that HBCUs were created as a response to unabashed racial discrimination. Critics seized upon this blunder as evidence that the school choice movement does not care about or understand segregation.

Liberals and teachers unions have also jumped at the opportunity to assail school privatization as racist, a perspective many had long believed but far fewer had verbalized. Now, when attacking DeVos’s enthusiasm for tax credit scholarships and private school vouchers, progressives point to Trump’s support for such racist policies as immigrant deportations and police brutality; his administration’s enthusiasm for vouchers and charters, they say, must be understood as yet another extension of the president’s discriminatory agenda.

“Racism is unfortunately and undeniably part of the context through which policy proposals emerging from this administration must be considered,” wrote Catherine Brown, CAP’s vice president of education policy.

The Century Foundation, another influential liberal think tank, published research in March that emphasized the risks that private school vouchers pose for integration efforts. (CAP and the AFT relied on this research when crafting their recent talking points on school choice.) Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg wrote in The Atlantic that policies to promote school integration took “a significant hit” from the Trump administration when it recently killed a $12 million grant program to support local districts boosting socioeconomic diversity.

While these critiques are overdue and welcome, the timing sometimes seems politically convenient. For instance, the grant program Kahlenberg lamented was only months old at its time of death, established in the final days of Obama’s eight-year presidency. Prior to that, his administration by and large refused to promote desegregation in the bulk of its major education initiatives. In some instances, Obama’s education team even incentivized policies that exacerbated racial and economic isolation, in part by treating competitive grant applicants who served segregated populations more favorably than those targeting diverse ones.

Many liberal institutions have modified their rhetoric on issues of segregation since Donald Trump came to power, but some still only invoke it when referring to vouchers. CAP and the Century Foundation, for example, have directed their focus on the segregative effects of vouchers, but much less so on charters.

Political tribalism plays a role here.There was great pressure, both explicitly and implicitly, for progressive organizations to defer to the charter-friendly agenda of the Obama administration. And it’s simply easier for labor to politically oppose Trump and DeVos than to fight Obama and Arne Duncan (Obama’s education secretary), even when the latter could be relatively cold to teachers unions (and they to him).

But now, with Trump in office, the NEA has adopted its first new policy position on charter schools since 2001—and it’s far more harsh than its old one. Among other things, the new policy blasts charters for helping to create “separate and unequal education systems” that harm communities of color, language that clearly harkens back to the Brown decision. The AFT has long been more generally critical of charters than the NEA, in part because charters are more heavily concentrated in cities where AFT locals dominate. But now with Trump, the AFT has also begun incorporating sharper critiques of segregation into its criticism of school choice. (The latest comes this week in a Dissent article by Leo Casey, the executive director of the AFT’s Albert Shanker Institute.)

A longtime NEA staffer has noticed “a real uptick in interest” in discussions of segregation at union headquarters over the last year. For a very long time, the staffer said, unions have been influenced by the same political climate that affected other liberal institutions, viewing many earlier desegregation efforts as either abject failures or politically toxic. In recent years, though, as the union-friendly Economic Policy Institute has published more and more on the harm caused by racial and economic segregation, the NEA staffer says they can tell it’s having an impact internally within their union. “Having an organization like EPI, with its stature in the labor movement, focusing on this issue really does change the dynamics,” the staffer said. While for decades progressives have looked at desegregation as a political dead end, the calculus—at least in some ways—appears to be changing.

If unions and think tanks are recent arrivals to the reinvigorated movement to promote school integration, they’re still ahead of much of the country, and civil rights advocates will surely welcome their help. But they may also have an opportunity to learn from organizations that have been fighting these battles far longer. Notable among these is the NAACP, which has long focused on the intersections of school choice and racial segregation. Partly due to concerns about segregation, the organization approved resolutions in 2010 and 2014 raising issues about charter schools. This was followed by a resolution in 2016 calling for a moratorium on new charters until more research could be done, and last month the civil rights group published a new report outlining policy improvements they plan to push for in the charter sector going forward. The NAACP’s campaign against segregation more broadly has been central to its mission since its founding over a century ago.

It’s important to recognize the complicated factors that bring groups to the 21st century’s burgeoning civil rights movement, because right-wing critics will certainly not hesitate to cry hypocrisy or opportunism. But there’s opportunity here too: opportunity for labor and policy organizations to develop a stronger commitment to school integration, learning from the experience of civil rights veterans; and opportunity for those veterans, who need allies now more than ever, to hold newly vocal advocates accountable for long-professed commitments to integration and justice. Political coalitions are always imperfect at their start, but that’s never meant a powerful movement couldn’t be forged from them in the end.

 

The Untold History of Charter Schools

Originally published in Democracy Journal on April 27, 2017.
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Despite the controversy over their very existence, there isn’t much disagreement over how charter schools came to be. For over 25 years, charter supporters and opponents alike have settled on a straightforward creation story, one defined by a single irresistible irony: Charters were first and foremost the brainchild of teachers’ unions, the very same groups that would become the schools’ greatest foes.

The story goes something like this. In 1988, Albert Shanker, legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave a speech at the National Press Club where he outlined his vision for a new kind of publicly funded, independently managed school. He called them “charters” and saw them as educational laboratories, where teachers could try out new pedagogical approaches. By empowering teachers to experiment with their craft, charters could serve as R&D spaces for new and better practices that could then be transferred back into traditional public schools. In a New York Times column published later that year, Shanker carried his ideas to the wider public.

Shanker said his piece, policymakers heard him and acted, and the rest—the explosion of charters, the debates over unionization and privatization, the constant experimentation with the form and structure of public schools—is history.

Today, this story has been weaponized by every side in the endless war over education reform. The Shanker speech, it turns out, is useful no matter where you stand on charter schools.

Many supporters use it to argue that charters are, ultimately, a progressive and student-friendly idea—but one abandoned by self-interested latter-day union leaders. Reform proponents like Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools have defended the charter sector against union attacks by lifting up that Shanker “conceptualized” them. “Union leaders haven’t always been adamantly anti-charter,” Rees wrote last year in The Wall Street Journal. “[AFT President Randi] Weingarten’s former boss and mentor Al Shanker is actually credited with proposing charter schools.” “Here’s a fact,” wrote Laura Waters, a vocal charter advocate. “If Albert Shanker were alive today, he’d still be an education reformer and would support NJ’s efforts to expand school choice for poor urban students.” When a ballot measure to expand charter schools in Massachusetts struggled to find votes on the left, David Osborne, a centrist Democrat, penned a column to gin up progressive support. “Al Shanker gave a speech and wrote a column advocating charters,” Osborne said. “Needless to say, Shanker was no Republican.”

For their part, teacher unions and reform skeptics invoke the same origin story as evidence that they do support school choice and innovation, just teacher-led, unionized, mom-and-pop forms of it. They tell it as a story of an idea stolen and betrayed, drawing a contrast between good charters—those described by Shanker—and what the schools have become today. Supposedly, the creator of charters watched with horror as his idea was “hijacked” by conservatives, profiteers, and privatizers. As described in his biography, Tough Liberal, written by the Century Foundation’s senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg, Shanker “became quite exercised” by state laws written to allow for-profit corporations to enter the charter school sector. Shanker grew worried that charters might actually promote segregation, undermine public education, and be used as tools to destroy unions. By the mid-1990s, Kahlenberg writes, “Albert Shanker largely repudiated a major reform he had helped launch.”

AFT president Randi Weingarten likes to remind audiences that Shanker was one of the first proponents of charter schooling, but that unfortunately some “have shifted the intent of charters from incubating ideas and sharing successes to competing for market share and taxpayer dollars.” Unions are quick to point out that, in Shanker’s mind, charters would employ unionized teachers, would have union representatives on charter authorizing boards, and all charter proposals would include plans for “faculty decision-making.”

There’s only one problem with the idea that charters started with Shanker and his speech: It’s almost completely wrong.

Shanker didn’t invent the concept of charters. He wasn’t part of the long-running campaign to popularize them. His significant contribution was the term “charter school”—except he used it to describe a very different, loosely related idea.

Oh, and he didn’t invent that term, either.

The truth is that the modern fight over education reform has changed less than the people fighting would have us believe. Who invented charter schools? The same groups, it turns out, that are charters’ strongest backers today: business-oriented moderates and technocrats, focused on deregulation, disruption, and the hope of injecting free market dogmas into the public sector. Charters do have a founding father—but he’s a quintessentially neoliberal “policy entrepreneur” who has mostly kept his name out of the history books. The major principles undergirding charter schooling—choice, deregulation, and so-called accountability—had already attracted significant attention long before 1988, and proposals to break up the “monopoly” of school districts had been building for more than a decade. If Shanker helped usher some of these ideas into the limelight, the truth is that those ideas’ backers had many other roads into the inner circles of government—even if some of those roads had not yet been taken.

Progressives have always occupied an uneasy role in the charter movement—one that’s unlikely to get any easier so long as Donald Trump’s Administration remains the nation’s most powerful promoter of school choice. The untold history of charter schools shows why this is: Progressive reformers are stuck fighting against the tide in a campaign that has, from the start, looked at public institutions, labor, and government with a wary eye.

The real origin story of charters isn’t about unions gone astray or progressivism betrayed by reformers. It’s the story of the Third Way in public schools. And it begins, of all places, in Minnesota.

In the 1970s, deregulation was the name of the game. Efforts to deregulate major sectors of government took root under Ford and Carter, and continued to escalate throughout the 1980s under Reagan. From banking and energy to airlines and transportation, liberals and conservatives both worked to promote deregulatory initiatives spanning vast sectors of public policy.

Schools were not immune. Since at least the late 1970s, political leaders in Minnesota had been discussing ways to reduce direct public control of schools. A private school voucher bill died in the Minnesota legislature in 1977, and Minnesota’s Republican governor Al Quie, elected in 1979, was a vocal advocate for school choice.

Two prominent organizations were critical in advancing school deregulation in the state. One was the Minnesota Business Partnership, comprised of CEOs from the state’s largest private corporations; another was the Citizens League, a powerful, centrist Twin Cities policy group. When the League spoke, the legislature listened—and often enacted its proposals into law. In 1982 the Citizens League issued a report endorsing private school vouchers on the grounds that consumer choice could foster competition and improvement without increasing state spending, and backed a voucher bill in the legislature in 1983. The Business Partnership published its own report in 1984 calling for “profound structural change” in schooling, with recommendations for increased choice, deregulation, statewide testing, and accountability. The organized CEOs would play a major role throughout the 1980s lobbying for K-12 reform, as part of a broader agenda to limit taxes and state spending.

Efforts to tinker with public schooling took on greater urgency in 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released its report, A Nation At Risk. This influential (though empirically flawed) document panicked political leaders across the country. Among other things, the report concluded that American public schools were failing—“eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity”—with ill-prepared teachers and low-quality standards. Its authors tied the country’s economy and national security to the supposedly poor performance of U.S. public schools, and Reagan capitalized on the alarm. His narrative fit snugly within the larger Cold War panic, and as in Minnesota, national business leaders were happy to promote this new movement.

School choice was not specifically mentioned in A Nation at Risk, though Governor Quie, who was then serving as a member on the National Commission, tried to get such recommendations included. But reformers didn’t have to wait long for a national endorsement. In 1986, the National Governors Association, chaired by Tennessee’s Republican governor Lamar Alexander, backed school choice in its Time for Results report.

Back in Minnesota, Rudy Perpich, a member of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, was elected as governor for his second non-consecutive term in 1983. (He had first served from 1976-1979.) During the four years that Quie governed Minnesota, Perpich worked on a global business committee for a supercomputer firm, and returned to government deeply shaped by his corporate experience.

Ember Reichgott Junge, the state senator who would author Minnesota’s—and the nation’s—first charter school bill, described Perpich’s role bluntly: “According to the history books, Minnesota DFL governor Rudy Perpich had nothing to do with passage of chartering legislation. In reality, he had everything to do with it.”

Junge traces this history in Zero Chance of Passage, her first-person account of legislating charter schools, published in 2012. Junge says Perpich was greatly troubled by A Nation at Risk, and thought increasing competition among schools would be a constructive response. As such, in 1985, with Republicans in control of the legislature, Perpich recommended two school choice proposals: postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO), to allow high school juniors and seniors to attend nonsectarian public and private colleges, and open enrollment, to allow parents to send their children to schools anywhere in the state. PSEO passed in 1985, and open enrollment in 1987.

1987 was also the year that the Citizens League waded back into the subject, publishing a report calling for “cooperatively-managed schools”—where teachers could participate in the operational decisions of their workplace. The thinking was this could help drive more distinctive schools—because school choice would mean little without varied options to choose from. The Citizens League’s description of cooperatively managed schools is strikingly similar to modern-day charters. Teachers would be “held accountable” for student achievement, and the schools would “have flexibility to function differently from the schools we know today, from different uses of personnel and technology to different work hours.”

In the midst of this policy ferment came the famous—or infamous—1988 Al Shanker National Press Club speech. The AFT was in a precarious spot. Public support for organized labor was wavering. Ronald Reagan was still in office, and had earned a reputation as one of the most anti-union presidents in American history, in part by firing more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

Shanker thought part of the path toward saving public education was coopting the forces attacking it. He controversially endorsed aspects of A Nation at Risk, embracing its ideas about higher standards, teacher accountability, and “restructuring.” He wanted a seat at the reform table, and leaned into the idea of “professionalizing” teachers to bring his members along. Shanker felt educators needed to not be seen as obstructionist, and the years following A Nation at Risk marked a massive shift away from the blue-collar unionism that had previously defined the AFT. In 2011, Louise Sundin, who was president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers in 1984, said that Shanker’s agenda following A Nation at Risk “was a pretty screeching U-Turn” for the union, “and still is [today] a difficult one for a lot of our members and a lot of our leaders.”

When Shanker gave his charter speech, he fused his ideas about restructuring and teacher professionalization with the growing popularity of school choice. He got the idea (and the name “charter”) from a little-known educator in Massachusetts, Ray Budde, who proposed the idea of school boards issuing charters directly to teachers to create new departments or programs. Budde presented his ideas at an academic conference in 1974, but they received little notice. Budde decided to try republishing his ideas in book-form in the years following A Nation at Risk, and sent it around widely in early 1988. It landed, among other places, on Shanker’s desk.

As Kahlenberg notes in Tough Liberal, a focus on restructuring appealed to Shanker politically. Pressure had been mounting throughout the 1980s to lengthen the school day and school year, to vie with America’s competitors in other industrialized nations. But this idea was deeply unpopular with union members. “The re-structuring focus allowed Shanker to argue that a longer school day or school year was not worth the extra expense,” Kahlenberg writes. Charters offered Shanker a useful alternative.

Shanker wasn’t even the first noteworthy public figure to call for reorganizing public schools. In the late 1960s sociologist Kenneth Clark, whose work helped form the basis of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, advocated for alternative public school systems run by institutions ranging from universities to the Department of Defense.

And once Shanker put his ideas forward, many ascribed to him far more power to shape the charter movement than he ever had, or even tried to have. Shanker’s endorsement was certainly politically valuable to reformers, but most had long had their own agendas. Ultimately he was just one of many people clamoring to define what direction school reform should take.

In fact, if charter schools can be attributed to any single person, it’s certainly not Shanker, Budde, or even Clark. It’s Ted Kolderie, a Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” and one-time Citizen’s League director who spent much of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s in the middle of discussions over school reform. His influence can be traced to almost every corner of the charter movement’s development, and unlike Shanker and the others, he remained dedicated to building and promoting the idea through decades of effort. Throughout the 1970s—through an initiative known as Public Service Options (PSO)—Kolderie’s group researched and advocated for different ways to provide government services, including education. As early as 1972 Citizens League published a report calling for “new arrangements”—namely with more choice and contracting. By 1981, Kolderie and a leader of the Minnesota Business Partnership launched Public School Incentives, a PSO successor focused exclusively on education.

One of Kolderie’s central ideas was to “end the exclusive franchise” of school districts providing public education. In several reports, he described the decline of public education as the direct consequence of public districts’ monopolistic power over schooling. His proposal: independent schools, accountable to parents through free market choice, and to the government through a set of contractual obligations. He specified that many different types of entities—universities, corporations, public school districts, nonprofits—should be able to manage these new schools, state law permitting.

This was a remarkably complete vision of the modern charter school, quirks and all.

So why do most people credit Albert Shanker with creating charters, and not Kolderie, who had been developing the concept for nearly two decades longer? One reason is because Kolderie liked it that way.

“To know Kolderie is to know someone of extraordinary vision, who often thinks light-years ahead, but still gently prods others along to where he wants them to go,” wrote Junge in Zero Chance of Passage. “Kolderie was a master at creating, refining, and redirecting ideas. He never would publicly ‘own’ any ideas, and ways to improve those ideas always presented themselves. He nurtured ideas and connected the dots for others.”

Kolderie seems to have understood that Shanker’s very different vision was a useful vehicle for his own ideas. In October 1988, the Minneapolis Foundation hosted its 14th annual Itasca Seminar, a summit for Twin Cities political and business leaders, and the year’s theme was public education. Shanker was invited to speak, and he took the opportunity to expound on charter schooling. His speech complemented the mix of school choice and independent school proposals that had been bouncing around Minnesota for quite some time.

Shanker wasn’t the only person to give a choice-oriented speech at that summit. Other speakers included Joe Nathan, a Twin Cities education reformer who personally worked with Lamar Alexander in the early 1980s to shape the school choice recommendations in the National Governors Association (NGA)’s Time For Results report. At the Itasca Seminar, Nathan would emphasize the need for greater school deregulation in exchange for “results.”

Two months later the Citizens League would issue yet another report, concluding with a strong and specific recommendation that the state legislature allow for the creation of “chartered” schools.

With Junge’s help, Minnesota would pass the nation’s first charter law three years later. Kolderie and Junge like to credit Shanker for helping to shape their ideas, but the final legislation appeared to be in response to the Citizen’s Leagues recommendations—and more than anything else, reflected Kolderie’s own vision of independent, contractually authorized schools.

In the end, Shanker’s comments on the law he was supposedly instrumental in creating were limited. Though Minnesota’s teachers unions fought the law’s passage, Shanker chose not to speak out during the legislative debates.

“I wish the architects of the bill had worked out the collective bargaining issues with the teachers unions,” Shanker told Kolderie, two months after it passed.

Although conservatives led the way in for pushing education reform in the 1980s, centrist liberals jumped on board in the early 1990s. In 1989 when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) named Bill Clinton as its chairman, it also founded its own think tank—the Progressive Policy Institute. Kolderie met PPI’s president in 1990, and was invited to write one of its first policy papers about school choice. Kolderie was happy to bring his ideas about “withdrawing the exclusive [monopoly]” of school districts to the Third Way. Bill Clinton embraced Kolderie’s proposals as he traveled around the country making speeches that year, even though he knew it was vexing teachers unions. (“It is almost impossible for us to get President Clinton to stop endorsing [charters] in all his speeches,” Shanker would later complain.)

1990 was also when Wisconsin’s Republican governor Tommy Thompson signed the nation’s first private school voucher program, and when John Chubb and Terry Moe published Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, an influential Brookings Institution book that called for school deregulation, market competition, and parental choice.

The “New Democrats” saw charters as a way to seem proactive on education policy, offer an alternative to private school vouchers, and avoid catering to the “More Money Dem” crowd, as DLC’s co-founder, Will Marshall, put it. For liberals who sought to weaken their party’s relationships with “special interest groups” like teachers unions, charters were a boon.

At the DLC’s national convention in May of 1991, Bill Clinton and DLC delegates would endorse an education agenda that included, among other things, school choice, accountability, and Kolderie’s idea, which the DLC explained as “giving entities other than school districts” the chance to operate public schools. Even in this early stage, the agenda followed Kolderie’s market-oriented vision, not Shanker’s union-oriented one.

Democrats’ endorsement of charters did little to dampen conservative enthusiasm for the idea. Indeed, Kolderie continued to serve as a trusted education advisor for David Durenberger, Minnesota’s Republican senator, who became an early federal champion for charter schooling.

At its outset, the real power in the charter coalition was what might be termed the “technocratic centrists”: business leaders, moderate Republicans, and DLC members looking for Third Way solutions that couldn’t be labeled big-government liberalism. While charters have drawn praise from other quarters—for instance, some educators and progressive activists see them as tools for racial and economic justice—these groups have never formed the heart of charters’ power base.

It hasn’t always been easy to hold the bipartisan charter coalition together, and fairly stark philosophical divisions have been bubbling to the surface over the past few years concerning what the movement’s priorities should be going forward. The election of Donald Trump, and his appointment of GOP billionaire donor Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, has plunged the charter movement into an even deeper crisis of identity.

Progressive and centrist charter leaders have so far been trying to walk the line between pushing back on the President’s far-right politics and remaining reserved, lest useful opportunities for bipartisan cooperation arise. But grassroots pressure for more aggressive opposition has been mounting.

Other parts of the coalition are moving in the opposite direction. The stocks on for-profit charters have spiked significantly since the election, with industry leaders anticipating a friendly new political landscape for what some in the reform coalition see as low-quality schools. In New York City, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz has emerged, to the chagrin of many liberals, as one of Trump’s most prominent charter defenders. (Some of Success Academy’s largest benefactors include major Trump donors such as John Paulson and Robert Mercer.)

Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia have charters, educating nearly three million students. Whether charter supporters can maintain the movement’s bipartisan backing while receiving support from a deeply unpopular President who promises to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” remains an open, and dicey, question.

The mythological origin story of charter schools—the Shanker myth—has served an important role in keeping the charter coalition together. The idea that charters come from unions lends a certain weight-of-history inevitability to school reform. It suggests that everyone has agreed that change must come, and the only question is from who, and what it’ll look like in the end.

Besides, on some level, the dramatically compelling nature of the story—unions creating their own greatest antagonist—keeps people from digging deeper. As a writer, it’s easy to want to believe it. This author would know, having once subscribed to it herself.

But the Shanker tale may have also helped undermine progressive school choice advocates, who find themselves chasing a vision that has never played a major role in the inner circles of school reform. Most charters are more segregatedthan traditional public schools, are non-union, and when charter educators do mount union campaigns, they almost always face tremendous opposition. If the promise of unionized, integrated, teacher-centered charters has proven devilishly difficult to fulfill, it may be, in part, because the movement’s leaders never took it very seriously to begin with.

The Shanker myth also leaves those who support traditional public schooling, in its original form, stranded in a political no man’s land. And right now, those people are in the fight of their lives, looking for firmer footing. More broadly, the Democratic Party has grown wary of the Third Way policies of the 1990s, suspecting they provide little defense against a resurgent right. As the charter coalition enters a new, treacherous era, the consensus history of charter schools may at last meet some resistance.

Why D.C.’s First Charter Union Election Was Called Off

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 3, 2017.
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In February, I reported on the first public union campaign at a charter school in Washington, D.C. Teachers at Paul Public Charter School wanted to form their own local—the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS)—which would be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Seventy-one percent of Paul’s staff signed a petition in support of joining DC ACTS, and asked their administrators on February 22 to voluntarily recognize their union.

When the administration refused to do so, Paul teachers filed for an NLRB election—scheduled for Thursday, March 30. (In a statement, the charter’s management said, “We do not believe that a union is necessary at Paul PCS.”) But the day before the scheduled vote, a surprising thing happened. The AFT, not the charter school teachers, called it off.

David Koenig, a government and history teacher at Paul told WAMU that their teacher organizing committee felt they had enough votes to win, and wanted to go ahead with their election, but “we did not have enough people who were willing to be public with their support to convince AFT that we were definitely going to win.”

While 58 of Paul’s 82 teachers, instructional aides, and counselors signed the initial union petition given to administrators in February, in the days leading up to the NLRB election just 33 people were willing to publicly commit to voting “yes” on March 30. Teachers on the organizing committee said that despite this, they were confident, based on private conversations with their colleagues, that they would still have a majority in support of the union when taken to a secret vote.

Experts who’ve studied NLRB elections have no such confidence, however. “If the teachers went forward, they would lose, absolutely,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations. “If workers will not publicly say that they will vote for the union, that means they are voting no. That has been proven a hundred times over.”

If the staff’s support for the union has dwindled, that looks to be chiefly the result of management’s opposition. Since the time teachers went public with their union campaign, Paul’s administration engaged in what some teachers described as an aggressive, scorched-earth effort to dissuade teachers from voting to unionize.

The charter school maintains that it never pressured staff on how to vote, and that it “support[s] the right of all employees to participate in such [union] activity.”

But on March 15, Emily Farley, the high school dean of academics; Danielle Singh, the middle school principal; and Rosemarie Ragin, the director of student services, sent Paul staff the following letter:

Make no mistake, this election will have a lasting impact on you, your job, and the entire Paul community.

We are deeply concerned about what this election means to Paul’s staff and our Scholars. We do not believe that this union would be good for you or for our school, and believe the entire community—including teachers and staff—will be better served by continuing a collaborative, cooperative dialogue and problem solving process that does not include a third-party union. One of the advantages that draws both teachers and students to Paul is our ability to work directly and efficiently with our staff on a range of things that matter to all of us. This allows us to meet the needs of our students and families while engaging directly with teachers and staff to create the work environment you need to be successful. We readily agree that this is not always been a perfect process and that it can always be improved, but by voting for AFT in the election, you may be voting away your legal rights to deal directly with Paul and your supervisors on issues that will determine your pay, benefits and working conditions.

We also believe that our future success and security hinges on our ability to provide a high quality education to our Paul Scholars. This is why their families entrusted them to us. We do not believe that the involvement of AFT will help any of us educate our students.

This issue is about our commitment to each other. You will be asked to decide whether you want to continue to have a cooperative working relationship with the Paul administration, or whether you want an outside third party, AFT, to speak for you. Remember, AFT can only promise to do things; we have proven that the Paul community can deliver when we work together. Our proud history demonstrates that we do not need outsiders trying to get us to work against each other.

Over the next few weeks, we will try to provide you with the facts about AFT and the potential impact of unionization at our school. We believe that once you get all the facts you will see that unionization is not right for Paul staff or students, and you will vote “NO.”

And in an email sent to staff on March 20, Paul administrators told staff to “PROTECT YOUR PAYCHECK. VOTE NO ON MARCH 30TH.”

xx

Moreover, on March 27, three days before the vote, Tammy Wythe, the school’s director of talent, sent a letter to Paul staff saying the school would hold off on issuing employment contract information for the 2017–2018 school year until after the NLRB vote. The school had previously told staff that they would receive this information by the end of March—acknowledging that “this information allows all of us—teachers, staff, and school leaders to plan for the next year.” The AFT filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint in response, saying administrators crossed a line by withholding information about whether teachers would continue to have their jobs until after the vote. (Following the election’s cancellation, the union withdrew its ULP.)

Despite all of this, the teachers still wanted to move forward with their vote. An AFT spokesperson told POLITICO that Paul’s administrators “created a toxic environment so full of fear, harassment and intimidation that we felt a fair election would be impossible at this time.”

From the union’s perspective, the fact that more teachers no longer wanted to publicly declare that they would vote for a union meant that management’s aggressive tactics were working, and that they had lost a significant amount of support.

By cancelling the NLRB election, teachers are able to schedule a new one in six months. If they had held the election and lost, then staff would have to wait one year before filing again. More importantly, from the union’s perspective, if the teachers lose their union election, then management might take that as a mandate to do whatever they want over the next school year. But by canceling it, management will have to remember that a failure—union advocates would say, a continued failure—to satisfy teachers’ conditions could mean that the staff could file again quickly for a vote. In other words, the union says it can help keep the boss on their best behavior.

Bronfenbrenner says that based on her 25 years of labor research, the AFT was right to conclude that the vote would fail given the drop in public commitments to vote in favor. “The initial petition is not a measure of ‘yes’ votes—it’s a benchmark as to whether you should go forward to the next step,” she says. “And if you vote and lose, it’s much harder to win than if you withdraw and try again. If you vote and lose, then the employer can go after the pro-union teachers and reward the anti-union ones. If they withdraw, then the campaign can continue.”

Despite not getting to vote for a union, it appears the staff’s organizing effort already helped increase teacher voice somewhat within Paul Public Charter. Since the teachers went public with their campaign, Paul’s administration added teachers to both the charter’s CEO hiring committee and the high school’s principal hiring committee.

The optics of canceling a vote that teachers wanted to hold doesn’t look great for the AFT, given that union officials regularly make a point to say that workers should have the freedom to decide for themselves if they want to be represented by a union. Bronfenbrenner stresses, however, that a unionization campaign isn’t about voting, per se. “It’s about winning. And if they vote, they will lose—they will get slaughtered,” she says. “It’s not democracy to let them vote. What would be democratic is to let them build their union.”

One Paul teacher, who didn’t want to be specifically mentioned in this article, said the campaign’s stalwarts are likely to continue organizing with their colleagues, but that it’s unclear what shape those efforts will take, or if they’d consider working with the AFT in the future.

D.C. Charter Teachers Seek to Unionize

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 22, 2017.
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This morning, teachers at Paul Public Charter School, one of the oldest charters in Washington, D.C., publicly announced their intent to unionize—a first for charter schoolteachers in the nation’s capital. As in other cities where charter teachers have formed unions, the Paul educators are forming their own local—the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS)—which will be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. 75 percent of Paul’s teaching staff signed a petition in support of joining DC ACTS, and asked administrators to voluntarily recognize their union.

The Center for Education Reform estimates that 10 percent of charter schools are unionized nationally, up from seven percent in 2012. As more and more charter teachers have launched organizing efforts, the absence of charter unions in Washington, D.C., has been notable—particularly given the city’s high density of charter schools. There are 118 charters—run by 65 nonprofits—within D.C., educating 44 percent of the city’s public school students.

Patricia Sanabria, a high school English and special education teacher at Paul, is excited about unionizing with her colleagues. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Sanabria is a product of D.C. public schools, and spent two years teaching at Ballou High School, a traditional public school in one of the poorest parts of the city, before coming to her charter.

When she first started working at Paul—which educates about 700 students from grades 6-12—Sanabria felt very supported by the staff, which was much smaller than Ballou’s. “It felt more like a family, I felt a lot more at home,” she says. But over the past three years, that feeling has waned, and this year has been especially frustrating.

“When I first got here, the teacher in the classroom next to mine told me that charter schools are ‘teacher factories’, and it’s very true,” Sanabria says. “They keep giving us things to do, and they don’t take into account how much time that adds to our work day. I would say I’m pretty routinely here for 10 hours or more a day, and that’s just not something you see in other professions, and certainly if you do see it, people are compensated for it.”

Sanabria thinks the working conditions negatively impact her school’s special education program, and she hopes a union can help improve it. “Part of that is linked to teacher retention and the hiring of teachers,” she explains. “I think [Paul] is not a very attractive one for special educators, who often have multiple degrees, because we don’t offer competitive salaries. If I had stayed working for DCPS I would be making more than $10,000 a year more than I am now as a fifth-year teacher.”

Two things happened last year which helped precipitate the union effort.

The first is that administrators brought in a consultant at the start of the 2015-16 school year to launch a committee with teachers dedicated to discussing school improvements. After a series of meetings, teachers submitted a list of proposals to their administration, including such recommendations as more transparent staff evaluations, caps on class sizes, and increased time for teacher planning. But the suggestions went nowhere.

“Soft diplomacy has been tried,” says Dave Koenig, a government and history teacher at Paul, and the first person at his charter to reach out to the AFT.

“Nothing really came out of the consultant committee, nothing substantial, no major changes,” adds Katrina Foster, a special education coordinator who has been working at Paul for seven years. “So the union was just kind of the next step, [we] organically moved into starting this movement.”

Paul teachers also grew frustrated at the end of last year when the high school’s popular principal did not have her contract renewed. Educators say they were given no clear explanation for her firing, and the teachers rallied together for the principal’s reinstatement. Their efforts, too,  went nowhere. For teachers like Koenig, that was the last straw.

“In my time here I’ve seen people who are really good, dedicated teachers shown the door because they have personality conflicts with someone above them. I’ve also seen really good people leave on their own because they feel underappreciated or overworked to the point of developing [a] nervous breakdown,” says Koenig. “I don’t want that to continue to happen. I want the staff to be stable and happy, and I think a union is part of how we get there.”

“I don’t think the union is for any one particular thing, but mainly to support staff, to give teachers a voice, and recourse,” says Foster.

Representatives from Paul Public Charter were not available for immediate comment.

Two key factors have inhibited charter organizing in Washington, D.C.

Charter teachers in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans—where successful charter unions have taken root—have had the benefit of receiving help from their state teachers union. When charter teachers have just begun trying to launch a brand new local off the ground, state affiliates have provided them with valuable transitional support and bargaining staff. No such intermediate body exists for the District of Columbia.

The Washington Teachers Union, D.C.’s traditional public school teachers union, has also been particularly embattled in recent years. In 2007, the city hired a controversial schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who was empowered to make decisions largely without school board or city council approval. As charter schools expanded throughout the city, Rhee proceeded to fire hundreds of teachers from traditional public schools, and regularly engaged in high-profile fights with the WTU.

Rhee left in 2010, but the union has since struggled to find its footing and regain power. Its current president, Elizabeth Davis, was elected in 2013, and has spent the majority of her tenure trying to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. Teachers have been working under a contract that expired back in 2012, and haven’t had a base-level salary increase since then.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Davis says she’s always been interested in helping to support charter school organizing, and that her members are interested in it, too. “The first three years of my presidency just ended up being far more than I anticipated,” she says, in reference to the contract negotiations that have commanded the union’s attention and resources.

“But our union is going to support charter teachers organizing in any way we can,” Davis said. “We want teachers, irrespective of what schools they teach in, public or charter, to have a union.”

Paul charter teachers say they’re looking forward to forming DC ACTS, rather than joining the 4,000-member WTU, because it will allow them to build something from the ground up. “I think being in our own local, and such a small unit, is going to allow us the freedom to be creative and innovative in terms of what we negotiate for,” says Koenig.

Paul’s educators plan to organize under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. Last summer, the NLRB issued a pair of decisions which said that charter school teachers are private employees who fall under the federal labor board’s purview. Even before the NLRB ruling, D.C.’s public employees’ labor board, which covers teachers and other staff in traditional public schools, had excluded charters from its purview.

If Paul Public Charter School administrators do not voluntarily recognize their teachers’ union, and challenge the NLRB’s jurisdiction should the staff then move for an election, the administration would effectively be saying that D.C. charter school teachers should have no formal rights under any labor board—public or private. Union opponents may see an opportunity to overturn the NLRB’s charter rulings in the Trump administration, given that Trump has named Philip Miscimarra as the board’s new acting chairman. Miscimarra was the sole dissenting voice in the 2016 charter school decisions, and argues that charter labor law should be left to state and local regulators.

Across the country, charter administrators and board members have generally fought union efforts, insisting that collective bargaining agreements would inhibit charter school success and flexibility. Gina Mahony, the former vice president for government relations for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a group that strongly discourages charter unionization, sits on the Paul Public Charter School’s board of trustees.

While Koenig says improving Paul is his top priority, he’s also hopeful that starting DC ACTS could spark broader change within D.C.’s charter school sector.

“This has always been partially political for me,” he says. “Problems we face at Paul are also problems in other charter and public schools. A really disturbing theme in education today is how teachers are treated so poorly, so that the good ones are pushed out, and automatons are brought in who are willing to simply teach skills for standardized tests. I think teachers unions are our only way to fight back against things like that, and unions in general are very important to fight back against a changing economy that crushes working people.”

The National Labor Relations Board Says Charter School Teachers Are Private Employees

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 8, 2016
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The National Labor Relations Board issued a pair of decisions in late August, which ruled that teachers at charter schools are private employees, therefore falling under the NLRB’s jurisdiction. The cases centered on two schools with teachers vying for union representation: PA Virtual Charter School, a statewide cyber charter in Pennsylvania, and Hyde Leadership Charter School, located in Brooklyn. In both cases, the NLRB concluded that the charters were “private corporation[s] whose governing board members are privately appointed and removed,” and were neither “created directly by the state” nor “administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate.” The NLRB determined that a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor, as governments provide the funding but do not originate or control the schools.

For Donna Novicki, a seventh grade science teacher at PA Virtual, the NLRB’s decision signaled that her long wait for a union had finally neared its end. Novicki and her colleagues voted to unionize in March of 2015, but her school challenged the NLRB’s jurisdiction, and the case has been under the board’s review ever since. The votes, which were impounded after PA Virtual challenged the election, were finally counted yesterday, and the teachers voted for unionization by a 57-to-15 margin.

Novicki has been teaching for 17 years, in both charters and traditional brick-and-mortar schools. This marks her 12th year at PA Virtual. “The teachers at PA Virtual are an amazingly dedicated force,” she says. “But we work longer hours, we work more days, we carry greater student case-loads, and after all that, we get paid less than our traditional counterparts. We’re hoping for a union to better meet that compromise with the end goal of greater student success.”

The NLRB’s decisions came amidst fierce ongoing debates over whether charters are truly public schools, or tools to privatize education. Unions and charter critics say charters are happy to be “public” when it affords them state and federal dollars, but claim they are private when seeking to hide from public oversight, or to opt out of rules applicable to those in the public sector. Advocates defend charters as public schools, saying they are open to all students, free to attend, and funded by taxpayers.

To understand the significance of these recent NLRB decisions, one has to go back a few years.

In 2010, charter teachers at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy (CMSA) filed for union representation with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. CMSA responded by saying its teachers fell under the purview of the NLRB, because their school was a privately incorporated nonprofit, governed by a corporate board. While the regional NLRB director initially dismissed CSMA’s challenge, the national labor board agreed to review the case. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, the most prominent national charter advocacy organization, filed an amicus brief in support of CSMA’s position, arguing that “charter schools are intended to be and usually are run by corporate entities that are administered independently from the state and local governments in which they operate.”

In a 1971 Supreme Court case, NLRB v. Natural Gas Utility District of Hawkins County, the justices deemed Hawkins County a “political subdivision”—and therefore public—by looking to see if it was created directly by the state, or administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate. The NLRB applied this same “Hawkins test” to the CMSA charter, and concluded in 2012 that CMSA was not a political subdivision, and thus private. While advocates sometimes say that charters’ public nature is evidenced in part by their need to comply with various laws and regulations enacted by public officials, the NLRB concluded that most government contractors are “subject to exacting oversight in the form of statutes, regulations, and agreements.”

Since 2012, the landscape has remained fairly murky for charter teachers looking to organize; charter operators have challenged the jurisdiction of both public labor boards and the NLRB, depending on which their staff is petitioning for the right to unionize.

In April 2014, teachers at the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School—a different, but similarly named virtual charter—voted for union representation. (This school has gained notoriety because its founder and former CEO was accused and finally pleaded guilty to $8 million in tax fraud.) While Pennsylvania Cyber challenged its staff’s attempt to unionize with the NLRB, the regional director dismissed management’s challenge, citing the 2012 CMSA case as precedent.

Two months later, though, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, saying that President Obama’s recess appointments of three members of the NLRB were unconstitutional. This ruling called into question hundreds of decisions the labor board had recently made, including their 2012 decision related to charter school employees.

A year later, when Novicki and her PA Virtual colleagues voted for union representation, the NLRB decided not to dismiss the employer’s challenge, as it had dismissed the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School’s challenge in 2014. In New York City, another charter case was also being reviewed; this time the teachers had tried to unionize with New York’s public labor board, and their employer, Hyde Leadership Charter School, argued that the teachers should be covered under private labor law instead. With the board’s ruling in CMSA undercut by the Court’s decision in Noel Canning, the board was returning to the question of the status of charter schools.

“The NLRB really took its time on Hyde,” says Shaun Richman, a campaign consultant who writes on labor issues, and the director of the AFT’s charter organizing program from 2010-2015. “I think that’s because the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy precedent was vulnerable to procedural challenges and they wanted to be very clear about how they are going to rule on most charter cases. As an organizer that clarity is helpful.”

The New York teachers union fought against classifying educators as private employees, but as organizing charter schools continues to grow as a priority, the NLRB’s recent decisions offer unions some advantages. In recent years, states with anti-union Republican legislators, like Wisconsin, have significantly weakened the power of public-sector workers to collectively bargain. Under federal labor law, as long as a Democrat remains in the White House, a teacher’s right to organize is more likely to be protected.

Richman says he loves the recent NLRB decisions because they force people to ask tough questions. “Charter schools were designed to be public but at a very fundamental level they are not public,” he says. “There are very critical errors in the way the laws are designed. They decided to make these things be nonprofit corporations, and almost all the problems with charter schools flow from that essential, unnecessary decision. You want a school with autonomy over its pedagogy and hiring? There’s no reason to make it a separate corporation.”

Going forward, challenges to charter unions are likely to be resolved faster for two reasons: There are now additional NLRB precedents, meaning there is less ambiguity as to how charter teachers should be classified. (Employers can still challenge the NLRB’s jurisdiction at any point during the election process, but there’s a greater likelihood that their claims will now be dismissed.) And in April of 2015, the NLRB adopted new rules to expedite the time it takes to hold an election, while also reducing the number of ways an employer could challenge a union effort. Teachers at both Hyde and PA Virtual had voted for union representation prior to these rules going into effect, but teachers seeking unionization in future campaigns may look forward to having an easier time of it.

NLRB Rules Teach for America Members Have a Right to Unionize

Originally published on The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on August 5th, 2015.
——

In another interesting development for the movement to unionize charter schools, the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Teach for America corps members should have been allowed to vote in a Detroit charter union election earlier this year.

Detroit 90/90, a charter management organization for the University Prep charter network, said that Teach for America teachers shouldn’t be permitted to vote because they are not professional employees. Instead, they argued, TFA members should be viewed as long-term substitute teachers.

Patrick Sheehan, a Detroit TFA-er told MLive that he and his fellow corps members are really pleased with the NLRB’s decision. “U-Prep hired us to teach just like other teachers. Making the legal argument that we are not professionals means one of two things: Either Detroit 90/90 doesn’t respect the work we do with students or they lied to prevent us from organizing a union.”

Shaun Richman, the AFT’s deputy director of organizing told The Prospect that University Prep’s argument was an insult to all TFA corps members and alumni around the country. “Nobody would have dared to say that TFA corps members are not really teachers even a year ago,” said Richman. “But now that they want a union, suddenly those kinds of insults are apparently on the table.”

While Teach for America does not officially take a stance on unionization efforts, Takirra Winfield, TFA’s head of national communications, praised the NLRB’s decision. “We’re pleased that the National Labor Relations Board acknowledged that our teachers are professional, qualified educators who are deeply invested in their school communities and are able to make individual choices about their union membership,” she said. “As a TFA network, we know there is tremendous strength in the diversity of perspectives among our talented corps members and alumni as they work to help make certain that every child has access to an excellent education.”

There are roughly 11,000 current TFA teachers and more than 37,000 alumni around the country. About 60 percent of Detroit Teach for America corps members work in charter schools. Nate Walker, AFT-Michigan’s K-12 organizer and policy analyst, was a former Detroit TFA-er himself.

It’s likely that we’ll continue to see more union campaigns launched at charter schools, and more Teach for America members among them. Many TFA-ers are progressive and young, and national surveys find that young Americans are among the country’s most ardent union supporters. According to Pew, fully 55 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 held a favorable view of unions, while just 29 percent held unfavorable ones.

Ohio Charter Teachers Fired for Organizing Will Be Reinstated

Originally published in The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on July 24, 2015.

Teachers at the Ohio-based I CAN charter network decided to organize a union during the 2013-2014 school year. Yet when the school year ended, the administration did not renew contracts for seven teachers leading the union drive—resulting in a cancellation of the scheduled union vote. While about 40 charter schools in Ohio are already unionized, those are mostly conversion schools, meaning teachers had already worked for the district before going to work for a school-district sponsored charter. These I CAN schools would have represented the first start-up charters to go union in the state.

After the firing, I CAN educators and the Ohio Federation of Teachers filed a federal complaint, which accused I CAN of making teachers feel like they were under surveillance and for pressuring employees to reveal the identities of union leaders. The complaint also alleged that I CAN increased staff salary and benefits just before the scheduled vote in order to dissuade teachers from joining a union.

One of the fired teachers, Kathryn Brown, told The Plain Dealer that she wants a union because teachers don’t feel valued. “The I CAN network believes that administration and a teaching template are all you need for education,” said Brown. “That’s the big flaw and why I got involved in unionization. A school is not just administration.”

This past October, the NLRB regional director sided with the teachers and accused I CAN of “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees.” The founders of the charter network, Marshall Emerson and Jason Stragand, denied the allegations, insisting that nobody was fired specifically for union organizing. (They pointed out that most involved in the union effort did have their contract renewed.) But Emerson and Stragand also made it clear they want to keep their schools union-free. “It would really cripple our principals and administrative staff. It could dramatically change the model. It could drastically change what we do,” said Emerson.

While the I CAN schools would have been the first Ohio start-up charters to organize, other charters in the Buckeye State have since moved ahead with their own successful campaigns. This past March teachers at the Columbus-based Franklinton Preparatory Academy voted to join a union. Since then three more charter schools in Youngstown have also voted to unionize.

As for I CAN, this week the NLRB finally reached a settlement with the charter network and imposed penalties for interference. I CAN will have to re-hire four of the fired teachers and give all seven teachers back pay. School officials will also have to post a statement in their school buildings that says they cannot interfere with union organizing efforts. However, the NLRB settlement did not include any finding of wrongdoing and I CAN only needs to pay $69,000 to be split among the seven teachers.

David Quolke, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union told The Plain Dealer that he and other Ohio Federation of Teacher leaders feel vindicated by the NLRB settlement, calling it “one of the strongest we’ve seen in our years of helping to organize our fellow teachers at charter schools.”

I CAN teachers are reportedly planning to schedule a union vote this coming fall. They will join a growing number of charter teachers around the country who are also organizing their own union drives.

When Charters Go Union

Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of  The American Prospect
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The April sun had not yet risen in Los Angeles when teachers from the city’s largest charter network—the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools—gathered outside for a press conference to discuss their new union drive. Joined by local labor leaders, politicians, student alumni, and parents, the importance of the educators’ effort was not lost on the crowd. If teachers were to prevail in winning collective bargaining rights at Alliance’s 26 schools, the audience recognized, then L.A.’s education reform landscape would fundamentally change. For years, after all, many of the most powerful charter backers had proclaimed that the key to helping students succeed was union-free schools.

One month earlier, nearly 70 Alliance teachers and counselors had sent a letter to the administration announcing their intent to join United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the local teachers union that represents the 35,000 educators who work in L.A.’s public schools. The letter asked Alliance for a “fair and neutral process”—one that would allow teachers to organize without fear of retaliation. The administration offered no such reassurance. Indeed, April’s press conference was called to highlight a newly discovered internal memo circulating among Alliance administrators that offered tips on how to best discourage staff from forming a union. It also made clear that Alliance would oppose any union, not just UTLA. “To continue providing what is best for our schools and our students, the goal is no unionization, not which union,” the memo said.

The labor struggle happening in Los Angeles mirrors a growing number of efforts taking place at charter schools around the country, where most teachers work with no job security on year-to-year contracts. For teachers, unions, and charter school advocates, the moment is fraught with challenges. Traditional unions are grappling with how they can both organize charter teachers and still work politically to curb charter expansion. Charter school backers and funders are trying to figure out how to hold an anti-union line, while continuing to market charters as vehicles for social justice.

Though 68 percent of K-12 public school teachers are unionized, just 7 percent of charter school teachers are, according to a 2012 study from the Center for Education Reform. (And of those, half are unionized only because state law stipulates that they follow their district’s collective bargaining agreement.) However, the momentum both to open new charter schools and to organize charter staff is growing fast.

IRONICALLY, THE FIRST MAJOR PROPOSAL to establish charter schools came from the nation’s most famous teacher union leader. At the National Press Club in 1988, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave a speech outlining a “new type of school.” Shanker envisioned publicly funded but independently managed schools, which would be given the space to try out new educational approaches and would continue to receive public dollars so long as their approaches proved to be effective. These schools would act as educational laboratories, testing grounds of new and better practices that could then be adopted by traditional public schools. A few months after his speech, Shanker dubbed his idea “charter schools,” in a reference to explorers who received charters to seek new land and resources. Later that year, the 3,000 delegates at the national AFT convention endorsed Shanker’s charter idea.

At its conception, then, unions were integral to the charter movement. The thinking was that without job security and elevated teacher voice, which unions help ensure, how else would charter teachers feel comfortable enough to take educational risks in their classrooms? In Shanker’s original vision, as Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter trace in their book A Smarter Charter, not only were charter teachers to be unionized, but union representatives were to sit on charter authorizing boards—the entities tasked with overseeing charter accountability—and all charter school proposals were to include “a plan for faculty decision-making.” In return, certain union regulations would be relaxed in order to facilitate greater experimentation.

The charter movement has grown from a single Minnesota school, which opened in 1992, to more than 6,700 schools spread across 42 states and the District of Columbia. Today, charters educate more than 2.5 million children—more than 5 percent of all public school students. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), charter enrollment has increased by 70 percent over the past five years. Public support is growing, too: A 2014 PDK/Gallup survey revealed that 70 percent of Americans support charter schools, up from 42 percent in 2000.

Somewhere along the way, however, charter proponents—conservative and liberal alike—decided that having no unions was an important ingredient for charter school success. By making it easier for principals to hire and fire staff, the proponents argued, schools could better ensure that only high-quality teachers would be working in the classrooms. The blame for the widening achievement gap between black and white students, the proponents believed, rested with underperforming teachers and the unions that defended them. Over time, advocates came to see charters not as institutions designed for collaboration with public schools, but as institutions that could compete against them, perhaps even replacing public schools entirely.

As the charter movement developed a more adversarial bent—one that no longer spoke of productive partnerships with public schools, and one that championed union-free workplaces—traditional teachers unions grew understandably defensive. The AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s two largest teachers unions, moved to openly oppose charter schools. Only in the past few years has their stance toward charters begun to soften. Beginning in 2007 and 2008, the AFT set up a national charter-organizing division, and today has organizers in seven cities: L.A., Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, and Philadelphia. Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing, says that as more charter teachers began approaching her union, the NEA started to see them as educators who should be treated no differently from anyone else. Both unions also recognized that such new national initiatives as the Common Core standards and President Obama’s Race for the Top meant that teachers at charter and traditional public schools faced similar challenges that the unions could help them address.

But organizing charter school teachers while opposing the establishment of more charter schools is no simple balancing act. “How could I support a union that for the last ten years spent a good portion of their time attacking our right to exist?” asks Craig Winchell, an Alliance high school teacher who turned out in opposition to April’s press conference. “They’ve spent the last ten years both supporting anti-charter school board members and fighting in Sacramento against what we do.” Especially when opening a new charter is paired with closing down a traditional school, unions are typically found rallying in protest. Critics argue that unions’ newfound interest in charter teachers, then, is just a ploy to collect more membership dues.

Having abandoned their outright opposition to charters, many of the AFT and NEA’s recent efforts have been focused on shutting down low-performing charter schools, especially within rapidly expanding for-profit chains, and pushing for a set of national charter accountability standards. While the thought of national guidelines for charter school makes many charter advocates squirm, the public overwhelmingly supports the idea. According to a survey conducted this year by In The Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy, 89 percent of Americans favor requiring charter management organizations to hold open board meetings with the public, as well as requiring all teachers who work in charter schools to meet the same level of training and qualifications as those in traditional public schools. Eighty-six percent favor requiring greater transparency over charters’ annual taxpayer-funded contracts and budgets, and 88 percent favor requiring state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances.

In 2014, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University released a report that documented a host of charter school problems, ranging from uneven academic performance to funding schemes that destabilized neighboring schools. The report laid out national policy recommendations designed to promote increased accountability, transparency, and equity.

The AFT and NEA came out strongly in support of the Annenberg standards, and have been working to promote them to state legislatures and school boards around the country. Leaders in the charter world, however, were less than pleased. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), an organization that seeks to influence the policies and practices of state authorizers, called the standards “incomplete, judgmental, and not based on research or data.” Michael Brickman, then the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, said the Annenberg standards would stifle charters’ innovation by “bludgeoning them with regulation.” He accused the authors of “standing in the way of progress” with their “overzealous statutory recommendations.” (The president and CEO of NAPCS, Nina Rees, told me she actually likes the Annenberg standards, but doesn’t know if they should be adopted across the board.)

IN 2007, BRIAN HARRIS started working as a special education teacher at the Chicago International Charter School’s Northtown Academy. “I’d just got out of grad school and was happy to have a job,” Harris says. “It didn’t bother me that it was non-union because it wasn’t something I paid attention to.” In May of 2008, the company’s CEO announced that in the following school years, teachers would have to teach a sixth class in lieu of supervising an academic lab (which is similar to study hall). Teachers were surprised and upset at what amounted to significant change in working conditions. Those who didn’t like the new arrangement, the administration told them, could find some place else to work.

It was an eye-opening moment for Harris, and he realized that this is what it meant to have a workplace without an organized staff. “We didn’t know [this CEO], we didn’t have a lot of connections with management, and people were unsure what the line of authority was,” Harris says. So with the help of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS), a union connected to the AFT and its Illinois affiliate, Harris and his colleagues launched a 13-month organizing drive. Yet even when presented with union affiliation cards from 75 percent of the faculty, administrators refused to recognize their union; they insisted that the teachers would have to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election. The teachers did just that, won the election, and Northtown became the first unionized charter school in Chicago.

Today, Harris serves as president for Chicago ACTS, which has grown to represent 32 charter schools and nearly 1,000 teachers. Chicago ACTS’s relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), an AFT local known for its militant opposition to school privatization and charter school expansion, has also evolved substantially over the years.

CTU was initially ambivalent, even suspicious, of these new unionized charter teachers. But Chris Baehrend, an English teacher at Chicago’s Latino Youth High School and vice president of Chicago ACTS, says this wariness was not reciprocated—indeed, ACTS was inspired by CTU and looked to it as a model. In the spring of 2012, as CTU was gearing up for its successful, eight-day strike against Chicago’s school district, ACTS teachers began to discuss how they could best offer CTU support. They decided to put forth a strongly worded resolution at the AFT’s national convention that summer. In it, the charter teachers called for a moratorium on new charter schools and an end to school closings and turnarounds “until their system-wide impact on educational outcomes can be properly assessed.” Baehrend and Harris worked with CTU leaders to finalize the resolution’s language, which was approved, though not adopted as official AFT policy.

The resolution was the first joint action that Chicago ACTS took with CTU. Since then, the two unions have convened for joint delegate trainings, workshops, and even parties. “We’re making conscious efforts to make connections and to encourage charter and traditional public school teachers to be joined in solidarity,” says Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of CTU. Sharkey himself turned out to a press conference in February to publicly support two Chicago charters in the midst of organizing.

ON APRIL 30, EDUCATORS AT North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted to form a union. The vote came after a long three-year battle with their employer, ASPIRA. With a final tally of 104–38 in favor of unionization, Olney became one of the largest unionized charter schools on the East Coast.

When the Olney campaign first went public, as Jake Blumgart reported for The American Prospect back in 2013, teachers went to deliver their union petition, signed by 65 percent of the staff. “[The principal] not only refused to accept it, but chased them down the hallway to give it back,” Blumgart wrote. That was just the start of a full-bore, anti-union campaign: Administrators held closed-door, one-on-one meetings with teachers and staff, threatened teachers with layoffs and benefit cuts, put anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, required teachers to attend mandatory meetings with anti-union consultants, and announced that teachers could be fired or disciplined for remarks they made about ASPIRA on social media.

When I asked Sarah Apt, an ESL teacher at Olney, if she ever tried to talk to management about workplace issues before going the union route, she laughed. “We’ve had a million committees and conversations,” Apt says. “You can have a conversation with them now! But without your coworkers standing behind you, the [outcome of] the conversation depends entirely on the whims of the administration.”

Apt says she and her coworkers want to build a union that will agitate for themselves and their students, in collaboration with parents and the community. “Chicago [where striking teachers won high levels of community and parental support] has set a new standard for what can be done with a teachers union in the United States,” she says. Parents have been standing behind the Olney organizing effort, from showing up to support teachers at school board meetings to making calls to the administration on their behalf. More than 40 local businesses also signed a petition backing the teachers’ campaign.

Though regional characteristics and local politics shape each charter school’s distinct organizing drive, the general hopes, challenges, and frustrations expressed by charter teachers I spoke with were strikingly similar.

Greg Swanson, an English teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School, the top-performing charter school in Louisiana, echoes Apt’s frustrations about the power dynamics that can inhibit teachers from effecting change in a non-unionized school. (New Orleans has the highest charter density in the country, claiming roughly 90 percent of the city’s public school students.) Before Ben Franklin High’s teachers decided to unionize, Swanson says, they tried different ways to increase teacher voice, such as forming a committee to advocate for teacher and student issues, including better teacher course loads, increased curriculum coordination, and more academic supports for incoming students. “When we brought [our ideas] to the attention of the administration, we were just told that they can deal with some things and not others,” Swanson recalls. “Without the pressure of the union, [our voices are] not heard in the same way.”

In March, after 85 percent of his Ben Franklin colleagues backed a petition in support of unionization, Swanson and his coworkers signed the first collective bargaining agreement for New Orleans teachers since Hurricane Katrina. Teachers not only won greater pay-scale transparency in their contract but also the right to have department chairs elected by their colleagues rather than appointed by their CEO. They won increased time within the school day to prepare lesson plans, greater job security, and a fairer teacher evaluation system.

Ben Franklin has long been regarded as an educational leader in Louisiana, and Swanson’s team understood that their organizing had consequence for the broader political landscape. “We were looking to improve things in our school, but we were also very much aware of the larger implications of this for New Orleans, which is the testing ground for going full-charter,” said Swanson. With this in mind, they worked to develop a contract that they hope can become a model for charter teachers across the city. Teachers at another local charter, Morris Jeff Community School, followed their lead, and are currently negotiating their own contract.

Many New Orleans charter advocates are wary of the turn toward unionization, but some leaders are urging the community to stay calm. Andre Perry, an education policy expert, wrote in The Hechinger Report that New Orleans reformers should be open to unions given the Crescent City’s high rate of teacher turnover. Ten years after Katrina, he wrote, “we’re not going to fire our way to educational success.

EVERY YEAR, THE NATIONAL Alliance of Public Charter Schools publishes a rating system that evaluates each state’s charter law. While charters with collective bargaining agreements are still considered welcome within the charter school family, state laws receive a higher NAPCS score when they allow administrators to hire and fire teachers free from the constraints of a collective bargaining agreement. Nina Rees, the NAPCS president, says her organization places a premium on this because charters should have the freedom not only to hire and fire, but also to expand the school day and workload “without having to constantly negotiate with a centralized bureaucracy.”

Terry Moe, a Stanford political scientist and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, thinks that while “teacher voice” is a necessary component to any functioning organization, teachers unions use their power in ways that are not in the best interests of students. Moe and Rees both take the position that in the modern world, unions are not necessary in charter schools, either because there are already sufficient employee protections in place in our legal system, or just because the incentives within the charter world are such that there’s not really all that much to worry about.

“I’m in a nonprofit space,” Rees says. “Why is it that teachers need to have the right [to be in a union]? Why is it that teachers need these protections immediately when they enter the organization?” If one wants some of the protections and benefits that unions offer, she points out, there are other resources available to teachers. The Association of American Educators (AAE), for instance, is a non-unionized professional educators’ organization that offers a “modern approach to teacher representation and educational advocacy.” Membership in AAE can bring you things like liability insurance, supplementary insurance, legal protection, and employment rights coverage. It cannot, however, bring you leverage with your employer.

In A Smarter Charter, Potter and Kahlenberg recommend giving teachers an opportunity to vote on whether or not to form a union when a charter school first opens, rather than having non-union environments be the default option. Where a school has no union, they suggest reserving seats for teachers on charter school boards. But Rees is no fan of these ideas either. “If you start off with the premise that management is against the employee before you even start the enterprise,” she says, “I think it sets the wrong tone.”

The generally small size of charters, Moe adds, also obviates the need for unions. “In small schools, where everyone knows one another and they can talk about their issues …  you’re really not likely to get the same dissatisfaction that would drive people to unionize in the great number of charter schools,” he says.

Leading charter advocates echo Moe and Rees’s sentiments. Chester Finn, a conservative policy analyst, declared, “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Geoffrey Canada, a charter founder hailed as a pioneer by Obama, said that union contracts, “kill innovation; it stops anything from changing.”

Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of NACSA, doesn’t buy the argument that unions are structurally incompatible with charters. “There are people who politically don’t want unions or don’t want charters to be unionized, but [allowing workers to choose] is the law of the land.” The key question, he argues, is whether unionization ends up helping or hurting student achievement—a question that will be resolved empirically. “If teachers want to organize and negotiate for certain things, go ahead,” he says, because in the end, the charter school has to work for students or else its charter will be revoked.

So are unions compatible with fulfilling the promise of charter schools?

I sat down with Juan Salgado, the president and CEO of Instituto Del Progreso Latino, a nonprofit educational organization in Pilsen, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, to learn what it’s been like for him to oversee two charters that have unionized with AFT. Salgado believes that unions have been tremendous assets for his schools, particularly around some of the more fraught questions of wages and benefits. Can such issues be resolved “without a union?” he asks. “Yeah. But can we move forward to actually run a school? Probably not.” The mutual buy-in at the end of the negotiating process, Salgado said, created a better spirit at his schools.

Though Salgado was explicit that he disapproved of the way the union conducted its first organizing campaign—the organizers caricatured him as an evil boss, he says, solely to advance their strategy—he still feels the resulting unions, full of organized, passionate people, are no hindrance to excellence. “Unions ask a lot of questions! And that’s OK,” he says. “Critical questioning causes reflection and makes sure you have very good answers. And they demand transparency, and transparency is important. It’s a value that we should all have.”

To date, the best existing research suggests that charter unionization has very little impact on student achievement. Labor economist Aaron Sojourner and education policy researcher Cassandra Hart looked at California charters several years before unionization and then several years after; they found no significant difference in student performance over time, though there was a temporary dip during the initial unionization year, which tends to be a more disruptive period.

Moreover, as Potter and Kahlenberg document in A Smarter Charter, other research on unions and traditional public school performance suggests that unionization either has small positive effects or no measurable effects at all on the achievement of most students. “The research does not paint a picture of unions as an enemy to student achievement,” Kahlenberg and Potter conclude.

That said, there are other ways to think about the way a union might impact a school. Higher teacher salaries, more transparent pay scales, and greater control over working conditions may help attract more qualified candidates to teach. Research does show that increased teacher voice helps decrease teacher turnover, and it also shows that high teacher turnover costs schools millions of dollars, disrupts student learning, and weakens institutional capacity. Many objectives that teachers hope to achieve through unionization are grounded in a desire for greater stability. “We want to stick around, we want to see our freshman graduate, we want to see their siblings and cousins come, we want to make this our home,” says Apt, whose Olney Charter High School has had high teacher turnover from year to year.

IN RECENT YEARS, as growing numbers of charter school teachers have sought to unionize, both the AFT and the NEA have stepped up their efforts to organize them. Since 2009, the AFT has been flying teacher activists from across the country to meet one another, share stories, and strategize national campaigns. The most recent gathering—they usually last three days—took place in Washington, D.C., in April, and Swanson, Apt, and Baehrend were among the 40 teachers in attendance. “The fights are very similar, so what we see one employer do in Detroit, we wind up seeing in other parts of the country too,” says Shaun Richman, AFT’s deputy director of organizing. “Teachers get the opportunity to support each other, and to learn how to deal with circumstances that may arise at their schools later.”

Also in April, for the first time ever, the California Teachers Association (CTA), an NEA state affiliate, convened 65 charter educators from across the state. One California teacher in attendance was Jen Shilen, who teaches U.S. history, economics, and government at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), a network of 11 virtual charter schools for grades K–12. Shilen and others have been fighting for a CAVA union since December 2013. When their workload began to change rapidly and inexplicably, and their many attempts to raise concerns with management went nowhere, Shilen said, they reached out to CTA. CAVA declined to comment.

“Going to CTA’s conference was the first time I’ve gotten to meet other charter educators organizing and it was a major morale boost,” says Shilen, who rarely even sees her own coworkers, since virtual charter teachers work from home.

Teachers organizing at L.A.’s Alliance schools were also there, as were union members from Green Dot, another rapidly expanding charter chain in Los Angeles. Green Dot schools occupy a unique place in the charter world, since their original founder was interested in establishing a unionized workplace from the outset. In 2006, Green Dot management approached the United Teachers of Los Angeles about their teachers joining their union, but UTLA, then fully opposed to charter schools, rejected the offer. As a result, Green Dot educators unionized with CTA, and their union, the Asociación de Maestros Unidos (AMU), had a relatively unfriendly relationship with UTLA for the next several years.

This too is changing. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the UTLA president elected in April 2014, said that his union is now actively pursuing better relations with AMU. AMU in turn, has come out in strong public support not only for CAVA’s organizing drive (which would be with CTA) but also for Alliance’s. Salina Joiner, AMU’s president, says that her organization’s leadership is all “in support and we’ll do whatever we need to do,” adding that she would never work at a non-union charter school.

Real tensions remain surrounding AFT and NEA’s desire to both organize charter teachers and to politically rein in charter schools. Not all charter teachers who’d be interested in a union would support the Chicago ACTS resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. And not all would agree with teachers like Shilen, who lobbied this year at the State Capitol in Sacramento on behalf of California’s “Annenberg Package”—four bills to promote greater charter transparency and accountability.

Joiner feels that union political activity that attempts to limit charter schools’ funding or expansion is “disrespectful to our educators that teach at that school” and “an injustice to parents that want school choice.” Joiner attended the CTA’s gathering of California charter teachers in April, and said that at least the union is now starting to ask them for their input on charter legislation. To CTA’s credit, she thinks the conversation is “moving in a positive direction from what it was before,” but that charter union members “still have a lot to do around the NEA and AFT.”

As more charter schools continue to unionize, CTU Vice President Sharkey expects some charter enthusiasts will walk away. “At some point, charter school teachers will work with the same conditions and pay as all the other schools, and at that point it’s not clear that charters will be as exciting to the entrepreneurs and businessmen promoting them now,” he says.

Unionized charters are not a panacea. The UFT Charter School, which opened in Brooklyn in 2005, was a widely publicized K-12 charter experiment to be run by the New York City teachers union. The results of its elementary and middle schools were mostly abysmal, and they closed down in 2015. (The high school performed better and stayed open.) The Wall Street Journal editorial board triumphantly declared that this episode shows the failure of “union dominance” over American public education. However, they conspicuously made no mention of UFT’s other charter school, University Prep, which has been ranked among NYC’s best.

The Wall Street Journal would never write about University Prep because it “disrupts their narrative” about unions, says Randi Weingarten, the president of AFT. “Look, there is not one silver bullet but what unionization does is it gives teachers a choice and a voice.”

Asharg Molla has been working at the Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School ever since she started as a Los Angeles Teach For America corps member in 2009. She likes working for a charter organization, and believes in its mission of creating a small collaborative community where teachers, board members, and parents can all work together. “But that’s just not what it’s been,” she says sadly. While she speaks highly of her school, colleagues, and principals, she joined in with the Alliance cohort organizing for a union because, she says, she recognizes there are limits to what even a good principal can do within a big, fast-growing organization. She knows too many Alliance teachers who are afraid to speak up, lest they rock the boat and lose their job.

The campaign in Los Angeles is gaining steam. Since Molla and her colleagues went public in March, the number of teachers who have pledged support has more than doubled—146 teachers (out of the roughly 600 who work at Alliance schools) have now signed the public petition. But Alliance administrators and their allies are doubling down on their efforts to thwart unionization. Beginning in late May, the California Charter Schools Association started to pay Alliance alumni to call parents at home, in an effort to drum up opposition to a union.

I don’t want to work for a machine that just cares about the growth and expansion of the organization,” says Molla. “Although [fighting for a union] is not an easy process, and can be exhausting, it really just shows these large organizations that we are the ones who make up this organization and that there needs to be that balance of power.”

The Uphill Battle of Unionizing a Philly Charter School

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 4th, 2015.
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O
n April 30th, faculty at North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted 104-38 in favor of forming a union, an NLRB election that Olney’s charter operator, ASPIRA, has since announced they’re challenging. Olney’s union campaign is only the latest in a small but rapidly growing wave of charter union drives nationwide. But few efforts have been as contentious, or as revealing, as this one. Ever since the campaign began three years ago, ASPIRA has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into an elaborate union-busting effort, even as the beleaguered district it’s funded by struggles with massive debt. Unionizing Olney also threatens to shine light on ASPIRA’s questionable finances, at a time when authorities at the state and district level have failed to act. More broadly, the union drive in Philadelphia reveals how charter management organizations can use lax regulation to dodge financial accountability.

ASPIRA took over Olney, along with John B. Stetson Middle School in 2011 through Philadelphia’s “renaissance” school turnaround project, whereby charter operators are given the opportunity to improve the academic performance of struggling district schools. As part of the renaissance conversion, remaining educators at Olney and Stetson lost their union membership.

It wasn’t easy for Olney staff to reach their April 30th election; for the past three years they have dealt with an administration intent on suppressing union organizing efforts. Tactics have included threatening teachers with layoffs and cuts to benefits, putting anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, and instating new discipline policies, which included barring employees from criticizing ASPIRA on social media. The NLRB sided with educators in three of the four unfair labor practice complaints they filed in response to these measures.

Other tactics that have garnered criticism, including from Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez—who once served as ASPIRA’s Executive Director—relate to services ASPIRA has employed, with public dollars, to fight the union effort. In August 2014, Philadelphia City Paper reported that ASPIRA paid a law firm with experience in fighting unionization efforts at least $72,163. This past April, the chair of the Olney school board signed a contract with consultants to lead self-described “union avoidance” meetings for Olney staff, as well as to help ASPIRA design and implement a campaign to fight unionization. The cost for these consultants was $25,000 and the contract stipulated that that figure “does not include any time that may be spent in responding or defending any charges filed by the union at the NLRB.”

Stetson educators recently launched their own organizing drive, and ASPIRA is sending consultants and lawyers there, too. Moreover, ASPIRA sent their consultants to lead a mandatory meeting at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School, another one of ASPIRA’s five charters, to reportedly “pre-empt an organizing effort.”

The budget problems plaguing Philadelphia public schools have forced the district to close dozens of schools, to lay off thousands of workers, to reduce transportation services, and more. How then, do we get to a point where charters are able to spend such significant sums of public dollars to fight union efforts? Who, if anyone, gets to have a say?

Are Charter Employees Public or Private?

Charters, which have been around for a quarter century, are publicly funded but independently managed schools. In education circles there’s a fierce debate over whether these schools are truly “public”—charter proponents insist that they are, while others see charters as a means to privatize education.

Aside from whether charter schools are public or private, another question is whether charter school employees are public or private—important distinctions not only for union formation but also for labor rights more broadly. The courts have taken the position that there is no clear-cut answer for charter employees, and each situation must be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on individual state laws and regulations, as well as the composition of each charter organization. But in one significant case from 2012, the NLRB ruled that educators at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy Charter School (CMSA) were private employees mainly because no government entity has the authority to appoint or remove CMSA board members, and no board members are directly accountable to public officials. In 2013, citing the CMSA ruling, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board effectively disclaimed jurisdiction over charter labor disputes in the state, concluding that such matters should be dealt with at the NLRB.

Which brings us back to Olney and Stetson. Despite previously stating that it would respect the results of an NLRB election, ASPIRA now claims Olney teachers are in fact public employees, and thus not subject to the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Stetson educators also recently filed for their own union election and ASPIRA challenged them, too. While the NLRB held a regional hearing and determined that Stetson educators are in fact covered under the NLRB, no determination has yet been made for Olney educators. However, since the legal arguments are the same for both renaissance schools, one can assume that the NLRB will ultimately uphold jurisdiction.

Many view ASPIRA’s NLRB challenge as a stalling tactic, but their action is not illegal. Wilma Liebman, a former chairman of the NLRB, told me that jurisdiction challenges are permitted at any stage of the election process. But considering that ASPIRA has not dropped their Olney challenge despite losing their Stetson one, many wonder how far ASPIRA will go before they agree to collectively bargain, and how expensive the legal bills are going to be.

In theory, if the regional NLRB rules in favor of Olney educators, ASPIRA could appeal to the national NLRB board in Washington, D.C. If ASPIRA loses all possible appeals, and they still refuse to bargain, then the NLRB will have to take them to District Court. Such cases are extremely expensive. “If they still refuse to bargain past a District Court ruling, then they’d be found in contempt,” said Liebman.

Other Questionable ASPIRA Expenditures

One reason ASPIRA so staunchly opposes unionization may be that the collective bargaining process could shed light on the organization’s suspicious finances.

One reason ASPIRA so staunchly opposes unionization may be that the collective bargaining process could shed light on the organization’s suspicious finances. Over the past several years, evidence suggests that ASPIRA has engaged in other instances of questionable financial behavior. The Philadelphia Daily News found that ASPIRA has borrowed nearly $3.5 million from its charter schools, though the public doesn’t know where that money went. Journalists also found that school staff used debit cards without providing receipts, and that bank loans were signed where one charter school would guarantee the debt of another. Under the law, each charter is supposed to function as an independent entity.

Lauren Thum of the Philadelphia School District’s Charter Office told Newsworks that the district couldn’t confirm whether ASPIRA is spending its charter school dollars in the schools themselves, or whether money is being siphoned off for other things. Part of the complication stems from the fact that although each of ASPIRA’s five charters is organized as an independent nonprofit, they all share the same board of trustees through their parent organization, ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. And although the school district worries that ASPIRA charters may be improperly shuffling money around, they have thus far been denied access to the parent organization’s financial records. “It’s very difficult to follow the financial trail when there are so many complicated, connected entitles, and money flowing throughout them,” Thum said. In the meantime, ASPIRA continues to deny any financial wrongdoing. ASPIRA also declined to be interviewed and several school board members did not return requests for comment.

In 2010, the Philadelphia City Controller released a report criticizing a practice common amongst Philly charters whereby the schools use public funds to pay rent to parent organizations or subsidiaries; this is what ASPIRA does with ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. “Properties that are being paid for with taxpayer funds are being either transferred [to] or controlled by nonprofits with no accountability to the school district or taxpayers,” the report concluded. However, five years later, the practice continues.

Under the law, unions are entitled to see the financial information that pertains to their bargaining unit. (This includes things like health insurance costs, salaries, etc.) And if during negotiations management shoots down a union’s proposal by claiming they have an inability to pay, then the union is legally entitled to access more financial information to verify management’s claim. “In my opinion, I think the real issue is ASPIRA doesn’t want a union poking around in their finances,” a Philadelphia School District official told me. “Having a union gives them the right to do that in order to bargain in good faith, and [ASPIRA] doesn’t want anyone looking at anything.”

And so far, no one really has. As millions of dollars move around between the charter schools, the parent organization, and ASPIRA’s two property-management entities, the school district’s ability to challenge ASPIRA’s financial behavior remains unclear. In January, the district sent a letter to ASPIRA outlining 17 conditions the nonprofit would need to meet if they want to have their Stetson charter renewed. Conditions include reorganizing Stetson’s school board so that the parent organization doesn’t directly control it and getting a treasurer with a background in finances and audits.

Since then, ASPIRA has complied with some of the district’s requests, and has challenged others. Notably, they have so far refused to provide access to relevant financial information of its parent organization, though conversations between ASPIRA and the district are still ongoing.

“Nobody has enough power or enough money to really stay on top of things, so it becomes really easy for things to end up in a big mess,” said Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple University Law School professor who studies Pennsylvania charter law. “I frankly don’t think the state legislature thought ahead about the financial ramifications in any serious way. It’s [as] if everyone thought ‘oh this is a great idea, oh there will be cool new schools.’”

A Need for Greater Oversight

ASPIRA’s accountability problem is similar at the district level. “We just don’t have time right now to oversee [all that] we’re supposed to oversee,” the Philadelphia district official told me, who added that they need far more resources and manpower to do comprehensive charter investigations. And, as the situation with ASPIRA suggests, perhaps school districts need to be granted explicitly clearer legal authority to track where charter dollars go. Though charters are premised on a model of increased accountability, the public, as it stands, is unable to hold these schools accountable.

Beyond tracking the unclear money, what about the costs that are clear, like the lawyers and consultants? When I asked David Lapp, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center whether the school district could protest ASPIRA spending public dollars to fight a union he said it would be unusual, though not necessarily illegal. “Generally speaking, the charter authorizer, which in Pennsylvania is the school district, has the general duty to oversee that charter schools are following the law,” he said. “I’ve never seen a school district give any sort of opinion to a charter school about labor law issues, but whether they could seems to be an open question.”

Regardless, as ASPIRA will find, there’s only so long that an employer can delay negotiating with a staff that’s committed to forming a union.