The New Fight For Labor Rights

Originally published in The New Republic on September 28, 2017.
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The American labor movement currently stands at one of its lowest points in history. Barely one-tenth of all workers belong to a union—down from more than one-third in the 1950s. Over the past half-century, the courts have gutted legal protections for striking workers, curtailed their ability to engage in political action, and granted employers broad “free speech” rights to frighten them out of unionizing. Under President Trump, workers are likely to be besieged by even more hostile attacks from Republicans and their corporate allies—including calls for a national “right to work” law that would strip unions of their ability to collect dues. If the labor movement hopes to survive in the twenty-first century, it will need a new strategy.

For more than 80 years, workers have primarily relied on protection from the National Labor Relations Act, the landmark measure passed under FDR that prohibits unfair labor practices and encourages collective bargaining by private-sector employers. But the law has been so watered down by unfriendly court decisions and legislative amendments that it offers little recourse for the labor movement going forward. Today, according to a new report by a leading think tank, workers would be better off if they adopted a strategy that turned to a different and more sacrosanct set of constitutional guarantees: the Bill of Rights.

According to Shaun Richman, a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers, workers should not just defend their rights as employees, but should also start championing their liberties as citizens. In a report for the Century Foundation, Richman argues that just as corporations have gone to court to claim broad constitutional protections, workers should assert their fundamental rights to free speech and equal protection under the law. “Unions have rarely if ever argued that these cases violated their own constitutional rights,” Richman says. “Rights-based rhetoric was kept out of their whole legal strategy.”

Consider several recent cases that unions argued—and lost—under the National Labor Relations Act. In 2011, workers at a Jimmy John’s sandwich franchise in Minneapolis launched a campaign to protest the company’s refusal to provide paid sick leave. In response, the company fired six workers involved in the protest. But when the union representing the employees, the Industrial Workers of the World, accused the company of violating the National Labor Relations Act, a federal appeals court ruled in July that the company had the right to fire its employees for engaging in “disloyal” conduct.

At the same time, Congress and the courts have sharply curtailed the ability of workers to go on strike, especially in solidarity with others. It is now illegal for truck drivers to refuse to make deliveries to stores where workers are on strike, or for cleaners to refuse to wash linens from hotels where workers are protesting. In 2006, Roger Toussaint, then the president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, was sentenced to ten days in jail for leading a transit strike that crippled New York City. Employers, meanwhile, have retained the right to lock out workers who are engaged in collective bargaining, and to fire employees without just cause.

To Richman, cases like these underscore the benefit of a rights-based strategy. After all, punishing employees for speaking out against their boss—whether on a flyer, a T-shirt, or Twitter—would seem to violate their First Amendment right to free speech. Similarly, going on strike should fall under the constitutional right to free assembly, and union organizing embodies the right enshrined in the Thirteenth Amendment to be free from “involuntary servitude.” In effect, Richman argues, unions should go on offense in the courts—and brandish the Constitution as their most powerful weapon.

“After the election, it’s clear Democrats need to do something to win back workers,” Richman says. “But they don’t really know what to do. Why not push the courts to establish a right to strike? Or the right to be free from arbitrary terminations from your job?”

Some longtime observers of the labor movement are skeptical that unions will embrace Richman’s call to arms. “I’ve found that unions are very shortsighted,” says Bill Fletcher Jr., co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal and a former education director of the AFL-CIO. “There’s a conservatism that exists in the labor movement—a sense that doing anything different might be too radical, or could be misperceived, or could lead to an uncertain outcome.”

Given the bleak state of affairs for workers, however, some argue the labor movement has little left to lose. “There’s no point thinking that if labor sticks with the status quo, they will survive,” says Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. “The National Labor Relations Board under Obama was probably the best it’s been for labor since LBJ. But even that kind of incremental progress is just not enough when you’re at total war with the Republicans.”

 

When it comes to corporations and employers, the courts routinely adopt a rights-based position. Unlimited campaign contributions are protected as a form of free speech. Denying the right of unions to collect dues from all employees is defended as “the right to work.” Employers have the right to permanently replace striking workers, and to put economic pressure on other businesses to support their own economic interests. Richman points to cable television providers that have blacked out an entire channel rather than submit to a rate increase from the channel’s network—and have even urged viewers to call the network’s CEO to complain. “Why is the use of the secondary boycott legal when employed by media companies,” Richman writes in his report, “but illegal when exercised in solidarity by workers?”

Richman spells out a variety of rights-based cases that unions should take to court—where even conservative judges have proven to be receptive to constitutional arguments. Unions should argue that workers have a free-speech right to protest their employers. If they are locked out on the job, workers should assert their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. And they should challenge right-to-work laws and the bans on solidarity boycotts and so-called “signal picketing”—such as protests in front of a company that mistreats its employees—as violations of their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. “Simply put,” Richman argues, “unions are hampered by rules that would never be applied to corporations, or to any other form of political activism.”

In addition to fighting in court, workers and their allies need to educate the public about workplace inequality and pressure Democratic lawmakers to block anti-labor judges. They also need to begin outlining a clear pro-worker agenda for whoever wins the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. The Obama era showed just how brief the window of opportunity can be for advancing labor rights. That’s why, even though the GOP currently controls all three branches of government, and the courts still tilt to the right on matters of labor law, unions and their supporters must wage a war on all fronts. “It would be horrible if people thought we could just pursue a long legal strategy and ultimately win in the courts,” says Stephen Lerner, a labor strategist and architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign. “It has to be part of a concerted strategy—winning both legally and legislatively.”

In a way, there’s no better time than now to implement a rights-based labor strategy. After all, Lerner points out, some of the greatest gains in labor history have come from workers organizing to fight illegal or unprotected conditions—whether it was farmworkers going on strike to protest low wages, or public school teachers mobilizing for collective bargaining rights at the state level. It’s not just Republicans holding back workers—it’s also the timidity of unions themselves. “There has to be a willingness to break the law as a way to highlight injustices,” Lerner says, “to show we can go on offense.”

 

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Fining Teachers for Switching Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 3, 2016.
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Last month, the Massachusetts Teachers Association reported on the story of Matthew Kowalski, a high school history and economics teacher who received a $6,087 bill over the summer from his former employer—a suburban charter school in Malden, Massachusetts. Kowalski had worked at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School for seven years, but with three young children and another one on the way, he said he wanted to find a teaching job that would offer something more stable than at-will employment.

Mystic Valley now seeks to collect thousands of dollars in “liquidated damages” for Kowalski’s departure. Every spring, the charter school requires its employees to sign one-year contracts for the following school year, but since many new teaching positions don’t open up until May, June, and July, this puts teachers in a tough position if they want to consider looking for alternative jobs. Kowalski signed Mystic Valley’s 2016-2017 contract in April, got a job offer from a traditional public school in May, and gave the charter written and verbal notice by May 20. Mystic Valley then hired Kowalski’s replacement, whom Kowalski trained. Two months later, his $6,000 bill arrived. It didn’t take long for Kowalski to learn there were others who had faced a similar fate. MTA Today reported on another teacher who had worked at Mystic Valley for four years, who was billed $4,900 in “damages” for giving notice over the summer.

As MTA’s legal division worked to help the former Mystic Valley teacher fight these charges, Kowalski’s attorney stumbled upon something surprising: Mystic Valley employment contracts included non-compete provisions, prohibiting teachers from working in any public or private school in any of the six “sending districts” near the charter school. Though charters are often framed as a way to induce competition into American schools, non-compete agreements—which have grown increasingly common in the private sector—make clear that some charter employers don’t believe that schools should compete for teaching talent. Nor is it clear that the agreements are even legal, or enforceable.

Just how common contracts like these actually are remains a mystery, but they’re not just limited to Mystic Valley.In 2015, the Akron Beacon Journal found that Summit Academy Schools, the largest charter network in Ohio, sued nearly 50 former teachers in a three-year period for leaving for other jobs. Summit Academy schools have non-compete provisions in their employment contracts.

“Summit Academy’s legal team filed [lawsuits] against as many as eight [former teachers] at a time,” the Akron Beacon Journal reported. One such teacher was Joel Kovitch, who quit in 2013 to take a higher-paying position. He gave his notice one month into summer vacation, and thought there’d be plenty of time to replace him. He ended up paying Summit Academy $1,200 after growing tired of fighting the legal battle.

The American Prospect also reviewed an employment contract for a charter school within the Constellation Schools network, another Ohio charter chain with 17 campuses throughout the state. The contract requires teachers to work for one year, to have no expectation for employment beyond that, and to pay their school $2,000 in liquidated damages if they terminate their employment at any time before their contract expires. The Constellation contract says this is not a “penalty” for leaving, but an acknowledgment that the employer “has expended considerable time and effort recruiting and/or retaining and training you to ensure you are prepared for your position, and … that such a disruption to the educational process is difficult if not impossible to calculate.”

In other words, teachers can’t expect to stay more than one year, but if they leave before one year is over, then they will need to pay their school two grand. Constellation Schools did not return request for comment.

Teachers who work at Ozark Montessori Academy, a charter school in Arkansas, also have to sign non-competes, agreeing to not “directly or indirectly … solicit, induce, recruit, or cause another person in their employ of Employer to terminate his/her employment for the purpose of joining, associating, or becoming employed with any business or activity which is in competition with Ozark Education, Inc.” The agreement lasts for two years after the teacher leaves the school, and it applies “in any area in which Employer plans to solicit or conduct business.” Charter teachers at Ozark are also required to sign confidentiality agreements that they will not directly or indirectly disclose “trade secrets” which are “used by Employer and give it an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know those trade secrets.”

The American Prospect contacted Ozark to inquire about their employment contract, and in regards to their non-compete requirement, a school representative said, “We pay for our teachers’ Montessori training, and since that’s such a big expense for us, we wanted in [the contract] that we’re not going to pay for a teacher’s training and then they go quit and work for someone else.”

The American Prospect reviewed a contract for another charter school in Washington, D.C., that, in addition to having a one-year non-compete provision and requiring teachers to keep “trade secrets” confidential during and after employment—including information related to the school’s “academic policies and strategies”—also requires teachers to not “create, or appear to create, a conflict of interest with Employee’s loyalty to or duties for” the school, “including, but not limited to, providing any tutoring for hire.”

This charter school also requires teachers to agree to mandatory arbitration—a process that involves waiving away your right to sue for grievances, or to contest the terms of the contract itself. The provision requires teachers to waive their rights accorded them by worker protection, civil-rights, and anti-discrimination acts, as follows:

The parties agree that … any dispute (“Dispute”) between the parties arising out of or relating to the Employee’s employment, or to the negotiation, execution, performance or termination of this Agreement or the Employee’s employment, including, but not limited to, any claim arising out of this Agreement, claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1966, as amended, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and any similar federal, state or local law, statute, regulation, or any common law doctrine, whether that dispute arises during or after employment shall be resolved by final, binding, and non-appealable arbitration by one arbitrator in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, in accordance with the National Employment Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association, as modified by the provisions of this Article.

The Covenant Keepers Charter School in Little Rock, Arkansas, requires its teachers to not disclose “trade secrets” and to agree to not work for any “business or activity in competition with the charter school” for two years after leaving, in “any area in which the Employer currently solicits or conducts business, and/or any area in which an Employer plans to solicit or conduct business.” The teacher also has to agree to pay liquidated damages in the amount of “$100,000 plus court costs, litigation expenses, and actual and reasonable attorneys’ fees” if the non-compete or confidentiality agreement is breached.

No one has sought to tally how many charter schools include non-compete agreements in their contracts. Schools certainly don’t publicize them; it often requires individual teachers coming forward to alert the public to their existence. A Gainesville, Florida, elementary school teacher wrote on a legal advice forum asking whether the non-compete agreement she signed at her charter school was enforceable. A teacher at the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School confirmed to The American Prospect that they too must sign non-compete agreements.

The Prospect reached out to the National Association of Public Charter Schools to inquire if the group promoted any kind of model charter employment contract, or if there are any provisions they specifically discourage charter schools from adopting. Vanessa Descalzi, a senior communications manager, says her group had never heard of other charter schools with practices like suing departed teachers for liquidated damages, or including non-compete, or forced-arbitration clauses.

The revelation of such provisions in charter school contracts comes at a time when the Obama administration and the National Labor Relations Board have begun to crack down on overly broad confidentiality agreements, mandatory arbitrations, and non-compete clauses. The White House says 20 percent of American workers are bound by non-compete agreements, and just last week urged state legislatures and policymakers to ban them for certain categories of workers, particularly those unlikely to possess real trade secrets.

The Economic Policy Institute says survey evidence reveals that many workers have no idea they are bound by non-compete agreements, with fewer than one in five employees consulting an attorney before signing, and only about one in ten attempting to negotiate the terms of their agreement. And as Economic Policy Institute vice president Ross Eisenbrey notes, even when workers know about the clauses, it’s a choice “between taking a job and not taking it in a tough labor market that favors employers.”

Even if such provisions are one day banned by legislatures or nullified by the courts, their current inclusion within charter employment contracts may be enough to deter teachers from taking the legal risk of moving on to a different school. This may be what the employers are counting on.

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.

California’s Ed Reform Wars

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 2nd, 2016.
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This past April, the California Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the controversial Vergara v. California decision, in which a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that five longstanding teacher protections—including a two-year probationary period for new teachers and a layoff system based on how many years one’s been teaching—violated students’ constitutional right to an equal education. The lower court judge had argued that these labor protections make it harder to fire bad teachers, and bad teachers significantly undermine a child’s education. In a 3-0 decision, the appellate judges concluded that the labor protections themselves are not responsible for harming students, even if school administrators sometimes implement them injudiciously.

Students Matter, a nonprofit backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch that’s representing the Vergara plaintiffs, has filed an appeal to California’s Supreme Court. Their supporters argue that children pay the price for such job protections as teacher tenure and seniority. They also point to research that suggests making it easier to fire teachers has positive effects on student achievement. Critics counter that the real problems students face—particularly low-income students of color—are not teacher job protections, but their under-resourced, highly segregated schools that fail to attract and retain high-quality educators. At a time when states like California face real teacher shortages, they say, the focus on firing teachers is misplaced at best.

Since the lower court’s Vergara ruling two years ago, similar suits challenging teacher job protections have been filed in New York and Minnesota.

While David Welch and his allies remain committed to waging legal battles against tenure, seniority, and other job protections, they are also pushing for statutory changes via the California legislature. Following the original Vergara decision, Republican lawmakers introduced a package of three bills to extend the time it would take a teacher to earn tenure, to repeal the “last-in, first-out” statute that makes layoff decisions based on seniority, and to establish an annual teacher evaluation system. These bills, however, got nowhere in the Democratic-controlled statehouse.

“I think the Vergara decision helped increase public demand for improvements in our education system, but I always think it’s better when we can make policy changes through the legislature rather than the court system,” says Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, the Republican who sponsored the teacher evaluation bill.

Back during the original Vergara trial, unions and some education experts also argued against making policy changes through the courts. A spokesperson for the California Teachers Association told The Wall Street Journal that legislators were already looking at ways to amend the contested laws, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that extending the time it takes to get tenure in California is a legitimate idea, but that such changes should be done through the political process, not the judiciary.

Today, however, local unions are fighting back against attempts to change employment laws through the legislature. California is one of just five states that grants teachers tenure after two years—32 states require a three-year probationary period, and nine states require four or five years. And, as critics are quick to point out, the reality is that California administrators must file paperwork for tenure status after a teacher has been working for just 15 to 18 months if they’re to meet state deadlines. Even those who are very supportive of teacher tenure feel lengthening the amount of time it takes to earn it makes sense. Before granting genuine job security, they say, make sure it’s for an individual you’d really want in front of students for the long haul.

But the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have both strongly opposed bills aimed at modifying tenure, even legislation from which their adversaries have withdrawn support. While the final outcome of the Vergara case remains to be seen, the unions’ firm stance against reform could help prompt tenure opponents to mount an initiative campaign—a routine occurrence in California politics. That may not bode well for the unions: A 2015 poll of registered California voters found that most respondents think teachers in their state receive tenure too quickly, and that seniority should count less during the layoff process. If changes to tenure and seniority were to come before the voters, there are decent odds that such a measure would pass.

The concept of teacher tenure in American public education, as Dana Goldstein documents in her book The Teacher Wars, was an idea originally imported from Germany. Progressive-era reformers saw that giving teachers more job security was often a good way to incentivize people to join the low-paid profession. Tenure also made it harder to fire teachers, which consequently made it more difficult for the urban political machines that then dominated cities to dole out teaching jobs as political favors.

Though teachers unions have existed in the U.S. for a long time, the idea of collective bargaining didn’t take off until the second half of the 20th century, as membership in teachers unions grew, and public sector unionism gained strength more broadly. The first teachers union to win collective bargaining rights was New York City’s United Federation of Teachers in 1963, and by the end of the 1970s, after a series of labor strikes across the country, 72 percent of public school teachers were covered under collective bargaining agreements.

As a result, teacher tenure in unionized school districts means being covered under a “just cause” provision in a collective bargaining agreement. In a non-unionized workplace, employees can be fired simply because an employer doesn’t like them. The added job security that comes with tenure means that a boss would need to legally demonstrate that firing their employee was justified—that there is “just cause” for the worker’s termination. Tenured employees also have the right to contest their firing.

Tenure critics rightly note that in many school districts, the process an administrator has to go through in order to dismiss a teacher for cause ends up being so lengthy and expensive that it can feel nearly impossible. In many cases, it’s easier, and a lot cheaper, to keep an ineffective teacher employed, rather than jump through the legal hoops to remove them. In New York City, officials who make failed attempts to terminate teachers often end up just issuing fines.

Union contracts generally distinguish between two kinds of dismissals. The first is termination for cause; for example, an administrator should be able to fire you if you’re an ineffective teacher or if you sexually harass a student. The second type of dismissal is through a layoff due to an economic circumstance—generally, cuts to school district budgets during recessions.

Many teacher tenure critics also want to end the process of “seniority”—which requires that districts make layoff decisions based on the number of years a teacher has been working. Opponents of these “last-in, first-out” statutes say that high-quality young teachers are penalized under this system, since their few years in the profession makes them more likely to be canned, regardless of their job performance. This also disproportionately hurts students in high-poverty schools, critics say, because young teachers are generally assigned to those schools.

Some states, including many that are substantially unionized, have already explicitly banned seniority when making layoff decisions, and others require teacher job performance to be the primary factor considered. Ten states—including New York and California—however, still require that the number of years a teacher has taught be a partial, or the primary factor for districts when making layoff decisions.

Defenders of seniority say that if you want to fire someone for poor performance, then do it for cause, not disguised through the layoff process. In effect, tenure and seniority work together to give employers the flexibility to lay people off when economic circumstances require it, but in a way that protects teachers from being arbitrarily targeted, or targeted because they were paid more than more junior faculty. Seniority-patterned layoffs exist specifically to protect the “just cause” rights.

“Until very recently, these rules were fairly uncontroversial,” says Leo Casey, the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. “They prevented older, more expensive teachers from being discriminated against during lean economic times, and administrators often appreciated the simplicity of ‘last-in, first-out’, especially because there was no consensus on how to best evaluate teachers’ performance.”

In February, before the Vergara appeals court decision came down, California Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, a Democrat, introduced a bill aimed at finding some legislative common ground for the various employment statutes being challenged in court. While the three bills sponsored by Republicans in 2015 got nowhere, some believed an effort led by a Democrat might get more traction. Both the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have donated to Bonilla’s campaigns.

Bonilla proposed, among other things, giving principals the option of waiting until a teacher’s third or fourth year to grant tenure, and placing poorly performing teachers in a program that would provide increased professional support. If the ineffective teacher received another low performance rating after a year in this program, Bonilla’s legislation would enable schools to fire the teacher through an expedited process. The LA Times editorial board said her bill would make the rules “more reasonable and practical, while preventing capricious or vindictive firings of teachers by school administrators.” Education reformers initially took no position on her bill, but following April’s Vergara appeals decision, Students Matter, the group that brought the case, decided to back it.

However, Bonilla still lacked support from school administrators and teachers unions, and the California Teachers Association was urging its members to fight her bill. EdSource, a nonprofit news site focused on education in California, reported that the union posted an “action alert” for teachers to call their lawmakers, labeling the proposed legislation “an all-out assault” by “corporate millionaires and special interests.”

In June, Bonilla introduced an amended version of her bill, one that would require new teachers to work for three years before becoming eligible for tenure. Her bill no longer included provisions to create a new teacher evaluation system, to require teachers with poor performance reviews to be laid off before those with less seniority, and to remove many of the dismissal rules that administrators found frustrating. In an interview with The American Prospect, Bonilla explained that she needed to narrow her legislation’s scope because that’s what the Senate Education Committee requested. “They are looking for policy change, but my original bill was too wide-ranging,” she says.

Despite being significantly watered-down, the bill was still opposed by the unions, while the education reform groups that originally offered support came out in strong opposition, too. However, the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association now came forward with endorsements of the amended legislation.

“In my opinion, I really needed administrators’ support. That’s why we took LIFO [last-in, first-out] completely out and worked with the superintendents and the school board association to craft a version they could back. They’re part of the education community, they really understand what needed to be changed,” says Bonilla. The Association of California School Administrators is listed as one of Bonilla’s top campaign contributors.

Students Matter called the amended bill “a bad deal for California students” and urged members of the California legislature to reject it.

“The reform groups wanted everything, and some wanted everything but only if it was written exactly by them,” says Bonilla. “They didn’t want to come on board if it didn’t come out of their house.” She says Students Matter, and another reform-oriented group, Teach Plus, withdrew their support when her legislation no longer addressed seniority.

“If I had to choose who I was going to go with, I’d choose the administrators, the people actually running the schools. That was my priority in terms of really getting sound policy,” says Bonilla.

The California Teachers Association called upon its members to organize against the amended bill, saying it would take rights away from educators, and negatively impact students.

On June 29, the California Senate Education Committee held a hearing,ultimately rejecting Bonilla’s amended bill. Just two of the committee’s nine senators voted in favor—and both are terming out in November. (Five opposed it, and two others didn’t vote.)

“I do feel that at least having the hearing on the bill, which went on for about an hour and a half, was really important,” says Bonilla, who is also leaving office in November. “I felt it was important, as a Democrat, that I stand up and say, we as legislators have an obligation to our constituencies to find a solution and not pretend that the status quo is alright, just because the union says it is.”

One senator to vote in favor of Bonilla’s bill was Carol Liu, the chairwoman of the education committee. Liu told Bonilla that she could amend her bill further over the July recess period if she wanted to try and get more support. Bonilla took Liu up on this and submitted a new version that does not extend the time it takes a new teacher to earn tenure. All Bonilla’s latest version does now is grant school districts the authority to negotiate an alternative dismissal process with their local bargaining units, if they so choose. Right now, under California state law, local bargaining units are prohibited from negotiating the terms of their dismissal process. In 2014, the teachers union in San Jose tried to do this, and asked the California state board of education for a waiver so they could extend their probationary period to three years. But the state board denied the San Jose school district and its union their request. (The California Teachers Association argued that such changes should only come from the state legislature, not through waivers.) Bonilla’s twice-watered-down bill, then, would make such a change.

As of August 1st, it was still unclear whether Bonilla’s new bill would receive a waiver and come up for a re-vote. The American Prospect was unsuccessful in getting an interview with the California Teachers Association, despite repeated attempts over several weeks.

I asked Josh Petchalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, why his union opposed Bonilla’s amended bill in June. Wasn’t a one-year extension of the probationary period a fairly good compromise?

Petchalt, though, does not think the tenure law needs to be changed, and believes changing it would not solve the underlying issue of how tenure is assessed. “I think all the commotion about making it three years or five years really misses the point about what it means to have a rigorous procedure for evaluating teachers,” says Petchalt, who taught high school for more than two decades. “I don’t think it takes very long to decide if an adult should be working with kids. I think it happens relatively quickly if that person is being observed on a regular basis by properly trained administrators who know what they’re doing.”

Some leading academics share Petchalt’s assessment. During the Vergara trials, Jesse Rothstein, an economics professor at UC Berkeley, testified that two years was long enough for principals and school administrators to determine whether or not to award tenure. He cited his own research, which suggests that granting tenure earlier, rather than later, is better for students. Rothstein also argued in favor of using seniority to handle layoffs, which he says is a less costly, subjective, and controversial method than using annual performance evaluations.

If Bonilla’s revised-again bill, which has been stripped of its probation provision, comes up for a revote, she says she really hopes there will be “three courageous legislators” who will vote for its passage. “Allowing a union to bargain locally is not an anti-union position,” Bonilla says.

If her amended bill does not pass, or even if it does, the education reformers may seek to place an initiative on the 2018 ballot. Bonilla says she’s heard that there already been some money raised to start that effort.

If such a measure is placed before voters, I asked Petchalt, wouldn’t it look bad to oppose a bill that wouldn’t end seniority, wouldn’t end tenure—just merely extend the probationary period to three years, which is how long it takes in most states anyway?

“I don’t doubt that the optics are not great, but our members spend a career in the classroom, they are committed to public education, to children, and so it’s not good enough to say well there’s an element of goodness in this specific bill if the overall effect would make things worse,” he says. Petchalt points to the Vergara trial, and the broader political effort to weaken teachers unions and collective bargaining. At a time when public sector workers are under attack, when public education is under attack, he says, his union feels compelled to fight back against “a broad narrative.”

“The teachers union supported No Child Left Behind and it got them nowhere,” Petchalt adds. “And they supported [NCLB] for exactly what you’re saying, they didn’t want to be seen as folding their arms and being opposed to everything. [Some union leaders] said if we support [NCLB], then they’ll stop their attacks. But it furthered the attacks, creating a dynamic that resulted in very bad things happening.”

Petchalt is probably right to suspect that even if his union and the CTA backed Bonilla’s bill, even if union leaders agreed to change the probationary period to three years, education reformers would be unlikely to stop fighting for more concessions. In Pennsylvania, where teachers are eligible for tenure after three years, reformers are pushing to extend it to five years, insisting that three years is too short. In this political climate, unions have decided that ceding no ground and putting forth alternatives is preferable to compromising and hoping the disputes get resolved.

Whether this is the most strategically savvy move, though, is unclear. A survey released in 2012 of 10,000 educators found that, on average, teachers felt it was reasonable to work 5.4 years before being evaluated for tenure. Another survey released in 2015, sponsored by the pro-reform group Teach Plus, found that 65 percent of California teachers think that a probationary period between three and five years makes sense for administrators making tenure decisions.

“In California, when legislators can’t come up with a solution, it ends up going on the ballot,” says Bonilla, who worries about lawmakers abdicating their responsibilities, and the electorate voting on issues they’re not well informed about. “We as legislators have to be the ones to demand that the reformers and the centrally-controlled unions be reasonable. There is no one else who is going to do it.”

Hillary on Charters: Yes and No

Originally published in the The American Prospect on July 6, 2016.
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On Tuesday morning, as the FBI issued a recommendation to not indict Hillary Clinton for her use of a personal email server while secretary of state, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee came before more than 7,500 delegates at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., and praised public charter schools—to the audible dismay of some of the delegates—while condemning for-profit ones.

The moment of tension emerged when Clinton started to discuss replicating the success of “great schools”—including public charter schools. She noted there had been too much focus on so-called “failing” schools.

Though Clinton has been a long-time supporter of school choice, and her husband helped to catapult charters to the national stage when he was president, she took heat from charter school advocates in November when she remarked that “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” Although an adviser emphasized shortly thereafter that Clinton remains a “strong supporter” of public charter schools, many reformers remained leery of her commitment.

But on Tuesday, Clinton gave charters a shout-out, resulting in the loudest boos she received the entire morning. “We’ve got no time for these education wars!” Clinton told the crowd. Facing the evidently anti-charter audience, Clinton quickly pivoted to denouncing for-profit charter schools, saying, “We will not stand for [them].”

The Representative Assembly is the annual conference for the NEA, the nation’s largest labor union, which gathers each summer to set its political agenda for the coming year. The union, with its nearly three million members, endorsed Clinton in October, following the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed her last July. Throughout the campaign, Clinton’s ideas around public education have been much debated, with self-proclaimed reformers worried she would be hostile to their policies, while many rank-and-file teachers remained skeptical that Clinton would stand up for unions and fight efforts to privatize public schools. 

Despite these concerns, the mood in the plenary hall on Tuesday was overwhelmingly enthusiastic; members wore “Educators for Hillary” T-shirts, waved signs in support, and cheered with excitement.

“I want to say right from the outset that I’m with you,” Clinton told the audience early on in her speech. She promised that if elected, educators will “have a partner at the White House” and that they’ll “always have a seat at the table.”

Clinton framed her education policy proposals around the slogan of “TLC,” or teaching, learning, and community. She threw out a lot of ideas that met eager applause, from raising teacher salaries to reducing the role of standardized testing, to creating universal preschool for every child. She discussed “repairing crumbling schools” and making general investments in school facilities and technology.

Clinton’s rhetoric on charters mirrors language in the recently released Democratic Party platform, which says the party is committed to providing parents with “high-quality public school options” and expanding such options—namely neighborhood schools and charters—for low-income children. The platform comes out against for-profit charter schools, which it says are “focused on making a profit off public resources.”

According to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a charter advocacy group, just under 13 percent of charters are run by for-profit companies, though in cities like Detroit, more than 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profits. However, the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit is often messier than groups like NAPCS readily admit: Nonprofit charters can still hire for-profit management companies to run their schools.

Some states have begun banning for-profit charter schools, or passing laws that make opening them more difficult. Last year, California legislators tried to ban for-profit charter schools from operating in their state, but Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, saying he did not “believe the case has been made to eliminate for-profit charter schools in California.” The momentum against for-profit schools has clearly grown more pronounced since then, and also reflects growing divisions within the education reform coalition, between those who champion market-based reforms, and those who push for greater accountability.

In her speech, Clinton also denounced her likely opponent, Donald Trump, who enthusiastically endorsed charter schools during a March primary debate and has said he opposes Common Core standards and “may cut the Department of Education.”

The NEA carries formidable political weight. According to the union, its members represent one out of every 58 general election voters. Rallying those teachers who preferred Senator Bernie Sanders for president to not only vote for Clinton in November but also help campaign for her will be a pressing priority for the union’s leadership.

Following the speech, the union released a statement saying that Clinton’s remarks “held no punches in articulating a clear and inspiring vision of opportunity for every student in America, regardless of ZIP code.”

Can Teachers Unions Help Online Charter Schools?

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 27, 2015.
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In a major win for the movement to organize charter schools, a California state labor board recently ruled that teachers working for the state’s largest online charter network could form a union.

Teachers for the network, known as the California Virtual Academies, have been battling since April of 2014 with administration officials who refused to negotiate. That’s when more than two-thirds of the so-called CAVA network’s teachers voted in favor of unionizing.

Roughly 15,000 students attend CAVA’s 11 campuses across the state. CAVA administrators had argued that teachers at those disparate campuses should form their own individual unions instead of organizing a single union that would represent them all.

In a 77-page legal decision, the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) rejected this argument—setting the stage for CAVA teachers to move forward with their network-wide union. The California Teachers Association (CTA), a state affiliate of the National Education Association, will serve as their exclusive bargaining representative.

To teachers who have been agitating for a union, gaining the leverage to improve working conditions is a key first step to boosting student performance—something the online charter sector greatly needs. The teachers’ labor victory comes on the heels of several recent reports concluding that online charter schools are performing extremely poorly. Some 200,000 students take online classes through such institutions nationwide.

“Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” stated researchers in a report released by the Center for Research on Academic Outcomes on October 27. It was one of three different research studies released last month that arrived at similar conclusions.

Earlier this year, the progressive group In the Public Interest, which focuses on contracting and privatization, issued a report that looked specifically at problems within the CAVA network. It found evidence of poor academic outcomes, financial conflicts of interest, and insufficient supports for teachers, among other things.

CAVA is managed by K-12 Inc., a publicly traded company based in Virginia that made $55 million in profits last year. The K-12 Inc. schools offer classes to some 14,500 students across the country.

K-12 Inc. officials diputed the methodologies behind the critical reports. But the CAVA teachers who have been organizing for a union said the findings did not surprise them.

“I think those reports actually helped us because they just reinforced what we were already seeing with our own students,” said Stacie Bailey, a CAVA teacher on the organizing committee.“We’ve been trying to push the school to focus more on instruction for a long time.”

Bailey actually spent several years working as a CAVA administrator, until she grew so frustrated with how things were run that she went back into teaching.

“Personally, I joined the union drive because I just see that teachers do not have a voice at our school,” said Bailey. “It’s too top-town. I tried to give teachers that voice while working as an administrator, but I was not successful.”

Working for an online charter school poses some unique challenges for teachers looking to organize. “We engage in the workplace from our own homes, we are isolated, we do not see each other,” said Jen Shilen, a high school history and economics teacher who worked at CAVA from the fall of 2012 up until this past summer. “The process of building rapport with colleagues can be challenging.”

CAVA teachers say they grew interested in the idea of forming a union when their workloads and responsibilities spiked dramatically beginning in the fall of 2013—particularly when they were asked to perform more clerical duties. More paperwork meant less time to work directly with students, teachers say. Organizing talks kicked off at the end of 2013, and CAVA teachers soon approached the California Teachers Association for assistance.

“Some of us used to work for union protected schools, so we knew who to talk to,” explained Shilen. CTA helped the 700 teachers fan out across the state to coordinate with one another; helped them with press outreach, and connected teachers with legislators.

The union vote took place in the spring of 2014. “It was rather surprising that it was as successful as it was,” remarked Bailey. “We had to call every teacher, and send them a petition and they had to print it, sign it, and mail it back to us. That’s a lot to ask of someone, and we ended up getting a super majority voting for the union.”

But CAVA administrators rejected the petition, insisting that the teachers did not constitute one legal entity. “CAVA’s argument was that CAVA does not exist,” said Shilen, wryly.

What came next was a protracted legal battle, including five days of hearings in a state administrative court in February and March, with lawyers filing their legal briefs in May. In June, 16 teachers filed 69 complaints against CAVA on a variety of grounds, including violations student privacy laws, misuse of federal funds, and inadequate services to students with disabilities. CAVA’s senior head of schools, Katrina Abston, dismissed the complaints.

Teachers have waited since mid-May for the decision from the state Public Employment Relations Board, which arrived on October 30. “We were hoping the decision would come in July, about six weeks after the lawyers turned in their briefs,” said Bailey. “It took five months.”

CTA President Eric Heins praised the PERB decision in a statement and urged CAVA administrators not to appeal this “historic ruling.” Now, Heins stated, “teachers can begin to address the problems that are hurting their students, such as insufficient time spent on instruction, high teacher turnover, and too much public money going out of state.”

The CTA’s support for CAVA teachers has raised some eyebrows, particularly since the union has staked out some anti-charter policy positions over the past decade. As I reported in The American Prospect in June, the relationship between charter teachers and unions is evolving and complicated.

CAVA administrators, who did not return The American Prospect’s request for comment, have moved to appeal PERB’s decision.

“The ruling states CTA may seek collective representation of all teachers at all CAVA charter schools, notwithstanding that CAVA is not itself an established public school employer,” Abston told the San Bernadido Sun this month.

But CAVA teachers are unfazed.

“Even if they’re going to appeal, we’re still a union; it doesn’t stop our forward momentum,” said Bailey confidently. “We’re not worried about it.”

 

California Teachers Unions Push for Cushion Before Upcoming SCOTUS Case

Originally published in The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on September 8, 2015.
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This fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that could severely weaken the power of public-sector unions. The justices will decide whether such unions can charge “agency fees” (also known as “fair share fees”) to individuals who wish to dissociate with their union’s political lobbying but still benefit from workplace collective bargaining.

These reduced annual dues help stave off “free riders”—those who enjoy the advantages of union membership without financially contributing to the union’s work. The case’s lead plaintiff, Orange County teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, insists her free-speech rights are denied by paying agency fees, and argues that unions won’t actually suffer if she wins in court. “It’s hard for me to describe,” she told The Washington Post. “I just want liberty. I want to stop this silencing of my voice and the silencing of millions of teachers out there.”

As the Prospect’s Justin Miller put it, “the Friedrichs case has the potential to overturn decades of legal precedent [since 1977] that has become intractably embedded in union strategy—and state law.”

In the meantime, The Sacramento Bee reported that teacher unions in California are pushing Governor Jerry Brown to embrace a last-minute measure that would permit unions to address all new teachers during their orientations. Such conversations could help unions recruit new members, and thereby mitigate the negative effects of an unfavorable ruling in Friedrichs. As reporter Christopher Cadelago wrote:

Up against the clock in the Legislature, the labor groups are pushing for a bill that could give unions some time—a half-hour—to meet with employees to voice the benefits of union participation. That, some believe, could prevent workers from fully withdrawing from their ranks if the court rules against fair share fees.

One version of the teacher unions’ bill is “nearly identical” to a California bill that grants unions up to 30 minutes to speak to new home health-care workers during their orientation period. That law was passed shortly after the Supreme Court’s 2014 Harris v. Quinn ruling, which said that Illinois home health-care workers could not be required to pay agency fees. (Harris v. Quinn avoided the free-speech questions that will be considered in Friedrichs.)

Groups like the Association of California School Administrators, the California Association of School Business Officials, and the California Special Districts Association say that bills like the ones proposed by the teacher unions should be considered only after the Supreme Court makes its final decision in Friedrichs, and only when there is more time available for public comment.

I’d guess that if California legislators were planning on supporting a bill like this, they’d wait until after the Friedrichs decision came down, just as the home health-care worker bill passed after the Harris case was decided. Either way, we won’t have to speculate for much longer, because California’s legislative session ends this week.

NLRB Rules Teach for America Members Have a Right to Unionize

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