A Charter Union Case Heads to Federal Court

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 5, 2017.
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In May 2016, teachers at International High School (IHS)—a charter school in New Orleans—voted 26-18 in favor of forming a union. Yet more than a year later, school administrators are still refusing to bargain, insisting that the teachers do not fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. (There is no statewide collective bargaining law for public school teachers in Louisiana.) In February 2017, the NLRB voted 2-1 against IHS’s challenge, concluding that the teachers are indeed private workers under their purview rather than public employees.

Yet IHS, still refusing to bargain, is now taking its case to the Fifth Circuit—the first time a federal appellate court will rule on such a challenge. The outcome of this suit could affect labor law for charter teachers not only at IHS, but throughout all the Fifth Circuit states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Last summer the NLRB issued two decisions concluding that charter school teachers are private employees. In both cases, the NLRB ruled that 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 found that a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor, since governments provide the funds but do not create or control the schools.

These two decisions were important because they helped clarify whether charter school teachers fall under the legal jurisdiction of their state’s labor boards (which only exist in those states that have enacted laws granting public employees collective bargaining rights) or the NLRB. Charter operators have been known to challenge efforts to unionize under either jurisdiction, depending on which board their staff petitioned for the right to unionize.

To make its determination, the NLRB relied on NLRB v. Natural Gas Utility District of Hawkins County, a 1971 Supreme Court case where the justices found Hawkins County to be “political subdivision”—and therefore public—by looking to see if it was created directly by the state, or administered by individuals responsible to public officials or the general electorate. Applying this “Hawkins test” to charter schools, the NLRB concluded in 2016 that the publicly-funded privately managed schools do not qualify as political subdivisions.

But IHS (represented in court as Voices for International Business and Education, Incorporated) argues that the NLRB’s previous charter school rulings are not applicable to them, citing specific characteristics of Louisiana’s charter school law, and the unique reality that nearly all public schools in New Orleans are charters.

In court filings, IHS says it should be considered a political subdivision under the “Hawkins test” because their charter school is closely regulated by Louisiana, and has a board of directors that can be removed by state officials. Moreover, IHS says that since the overwhelming majority of public school students attend charters, this demonstrates that “[IHS] is a public school functioning as a political subdivision of Louisiana” since the state is obligated to provide public education.

IHS also makes a few arguments beyond the Hawkins test, such as saying that exempting the school from the NLRB’s jurisdiction “honors congressional purpose” because it would ensure that “vital public services like education are not disrupted by labor disputes.”

Although IHS is focusing specifically on its own school within the context of New Orleans, charter operators throughout the Fifth District have also weighed in to support IHS’s case. The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the Texas Charter Schools Association filed an amici curiae urging the federal court to find all public charter schools in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi exempt from the NLRB’s jurisdiction. According to the legal brief, Louisiana has 146 charter schools, enrolling 84,000 students, Texas has 761 charter schools, serving 315,000 students, and Mississippi has three charter schools, enrolling 400 students.

But which side of the public-or-private controversy charter schools come down on seems to vary with political geography. While in the IHS case, the state charter associations insist that all charter schools should be considered political subdivisions (and therefore public) under the “Hawkins test,” when charter teachers at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy filed for union representation with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board in 2010, the school responded by saying its teachers fell under the purview of the NLRB, because their charter was a privately incorporated nonprofit, governed by a corporate board. The National Alliance for 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.”

The difference, of course, is that in Illinois, a state where public employees have collective bargaining rights, charter teachers will more likely be able to win unionization campaigns as public employees. In Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, where most public employees have no such rights, a court ruling that the teachers are public employees and not under the jurisdiction of the NLRB will mean that management is under no legal obligation to enter into bargaining with them.

The National Alliance for Public Charter schools did not return The American Prospect’s request for comment on the IHS case and how it relates to the Alliance’s CSMA brief.

IF IHS’S ARGUMENTS SUCCEED in court, there are a number of different ways the Fifth Circuit could rule. At its narrowest, the appellate court could say that this particular charter school does not fall under the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Going a bit further, the court may instead say that the NLRB does not apply to this type of charter school; Louisiana has five different categories of charters, and IHS is designated a “Type 2” school. The Fifth Circuit could go even broader, ruling that no charter school in the state of Louisiana falls under the NLRB’s purview. Or at its most broad, the appellate court could rule that no charter in the entire Fifth Circuit (Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) falls under the NLRB’s jurisdiction, which is what the state-level charter groups are pushing for.

When courts have overturned an NLRB ruling, they have generally tended to tailor their decision narrowly. Still, the Fifth Circuit is hardly a left-leaning court, so it’s hard to predict how the judges might rule.

Legal battles aside, many of the teachers who voted for the union in May 2016 no longer work at IHS, citing harassment and intimidation they experienced during the subsequent school year.

One teacher, Chvonne Simmons, left IHS at the end of May, after teaching science there for four years. “I was not offered a contract to return, and it blew me away because the year before I was the science department chair,” she says. Simmons felt the 2016-17 academic year was very hostile, and she believes that union-supportive teachers were singled out for punishment. “In all my years of teaching and my years at IHS I had never been written up, and all of a sudden I was getting in trouble,” she says.

Another pro-union teacher, Jennifer Boyce, left IHS on her own last month, saying she had felt targeted, and ostracized. “After voting ‘yes’ for the union I was written up three times, after having taught for 13 years and never receiving a corrective action,” she told me.

There is no statewide collective bargaining law for public school teachers in Louisiana, but collective bargaining is still legal (unlike in other southern states such as Texas and North Carolina). Some public school teachers in Louisiana—such as in St. Tammany Parish and Jefferson Parrish—have negotiated contracts, but that’s because there were union-friendly school boards willing to do so. There is nothing in state law that can compel a Louisiana school board to bargain if it doesn’t want to.

So in some ways, charter school teachers in Louisiana actually have more legal protections right now than traditional public school teachers, since falling under the NLRB’s purview means the federal labor board can compel schools to bargain with unions. If IHS wins its court, charter teachers at that school, and perhaps across the state, would still be allowed to bargain contracts, but would no longer have the federal labor board’s help in compelling their employer to do so. In other words, it gets a lot harder.

A representative from International High School told The American Prospect they do not have any comment, as the court case is open.

“On the surface, this case is about an arcane question of federal agency jurisdiction; in reality, it is about union busting, plain and simple,” says Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and I am hopeful that the court sees through the administration’s bullying and acknowledges the educators’ right to bargain a fair and flexible contract, just as their peers have done at hundreds of other charter schools in New Orleans and around the country.”

It will be several months before the Fifth Circuit issues its decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Teachers Look to Unionize at Another New Orleans Charter School

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 26, 2016.
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Earlier this month, teachers at Lusher Charter School, an arts-based K-12 school in New Orleans, went public with their intent to unionize. Sixty percent of teachers, teacher assistants, and other Lusher staff signed a petition in support, but over the weekend the Lusher board voted 6–5 against recognizing their union. Now the teachers will ask the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election.

If the teachers prevail, Lusher would become the third charter school to unionize in New Orleans, the city with the highest density of charter schools in the country. The first two—Benjamin Franklin High School and Morris Jeff Community School—formed their unions last year. Ben Franklin staff signed the first collective-bargaining agreement for New Orleans teachers since Hurricane Katrina.

Lusher teachers began organizing in secret about a year ago. They waited until they had a majority of teachers in support before they went public, they explain, because they worried they’d lose their jobs or face other negative consequences unless most of the teaching staff was with them.

“I’ve been in a union pretty much all my career and I think it’s a great way to give voice to teachers, and a great asset to a school,” says Julie Sanders, a Lusher social science teacher. This is Sanders’s second year at Lusher, and her 17th year teaching in Louisiana public schools.

Since going public, Lusher teachers have been working to explain to parents and community members why they feel a union is right for them. Some parents wondered if collective bargaining would disrupt Lusher’s unique school culture, or if students’ educations would somehow be harmed. Unionized educators at Ben Franklin and Morris Jeff have also been helping to assuage the concerns of Lusher parents by telling them what having a union has meant for their schools.

Michael Masterson, a teacher who serves as a union representative at Ben Franklin, attended a Lusher community meeting last week to share his experience. “When someone says there are teachers who may have been tricked into agreeing to a union, or someone else says this is going to hurt kids,” Masterson says, “I can raise my hand and say, well, at Ben Franklin we also had people who were really worried about unionizing and it’s turned out okay, the kids are fine, our fundraising is actually up, our applications are steady, nothing bad has happened, and things have been calm.”

Indeed, U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Ben Franklin as the 53rd-best public high school in the United States, and the nation’s 15th-best charter. Ben Franklin’s rankings actually went up 27 spots over the past year.

Lusher is also considered one of the best schools in the state, and Morris Jeff has received national recognition for its approach to creating a diverse student body. This has led some people to wonder why it’s New Orleans’s top schools that are opting to unionize, not others.

Peter Cook, a vocal education reformer based in New Orleans, wrote that it is “apparent that the AFT and its state and local affiliates have been quietly lurking on the sidelines looking for opportunities to eat the city’s charter schools, presumably in an effort to eat away at the city’s reforms from the inside out.” Noting that the American Federation of Teachers has invested nearly half a million dollars into New Orleans charter organizing over the past year, Cook wrote that “we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking” the union wouldn’t ruin all the progress reformers have achieved “if we gave them the opportunity to do so.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, said in a statement to The American Prospect that the AFT is excited that three New Orleans charter schools “have formed unions and want contracts that give them a voice on the job, resources for their students and treat them fairly.” The AFT currently represents 225 charter schools in 15 states, and Weingarten says “we’re working with educators at other charters in the Crescent City and across the country who want a voice at their school.”

Masterson told the Prospect that “there are definitely other schools” in New Orleans that are organizing unions, but none of them are public yet.

When asked why they think it’s been the more elite, high-performing charter schools that have unionized in New Orleans, both Masterson and Sanders say they believe the stability at their schools plays a significant role.

“Schools with teachers that are stable with their employment are going to be the first to unionize,” says Masterson. “It’s not that the elite schools get to have a union and others don’t. It’s that stability is absolutely key to getting a majority, and having people feel comfortable to come together and not be scared.”

Schools with high teacher turnover—a condition that describes many New Orleans charter schools—can be difficult places to organize unions. “If teachers start having conversations with each other about unionizing, but the next year half the teachers are gone, then that process breaks down more easily,” Masterson says. Other charters, he adds, might be filled with teachers who are not necessarily looking to stay in the profession beyond a couple years, which can make it harder to motivate people to go through the unionization process.

Sanders notes that Lusher has far less turnover year to year than some other charters in New Orleans. She points to Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania education researcher who has found that one of the main factors influencing whether teachers stay at or leave a school is how much voice they have in making decisions that affect their job. Increasing teacher voice, job security, and transparency, Sanders believes, will help to keep her school stable and strong.

“We’re trying to be proactive here; the union doesn’t come out of anger or spite,” she explains. “This is just teachers coming to together saying, ‘What would it take to attract and retain the best people?’”

Charged with Firing Teachers for Organizing, a Chicago Charter Network Settles

Originally published in the American Prospect on January 12, 2016.
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The National Labor Relations Board finalized a settlement agreement this week between Urban Prep Academies, an all-male charter network in Chicago, and more than a dozen Urban Prep teachers who were fired abruptly back in June. The firings came less than a month after a majority of teachers at Urban Prep voted to unionize with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS). Urban Prep will pay over $250,000 in back wages and severance to 13 fired teachers, and two of the fired teachers were able to return to work on Monday. The others, who already had taken new jobs elsewhere, waived their right to reinstatement and settled for back pay.

Back in June, the union responded to the firings by filing two unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. One alleged that Urban Prep fired three teachers for their union activism; the second charged Urban Prep with failing to bargain with the union over all the teachers’ terminations. Educators, parents, and community members organized protests, urging Urban Prep to rehire the teachers.

Urban Prep’s COO, Evan Lewis, said earlier this summer that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

However, the NLRB launched an investigation into the situation, and on November 20, the board issued a complaint, finding that one teacher was fired for union activity and that Urban Prep failed to meet their legal obligations by not bargaining over the teachers’ firings. The NLRB scheduled a hearing for January 13, which has now been cancelled since Urban Prep decided to settle.

“We’re glad we were able to settle the charges rather than having to continue a long legal fight, because if Urban Prep had lost at the hearing they could have appealed,” says Carlos Fernandez, an organizer with ChiACTS. “These kinds of charges can take years to settle, so [resolving this] in just a little over six months is pretty good.”

The teachers at Urban Prep have been meeting regularly with their employer since September to work out the terms of their first contract; the union says they’ve made “significant progress.”There are currently 29 other unionized charter schools in Chicago, and a growing number nationwide.

The total amount that Urban Prep has agreed to pay—$261,346—marks the largest unfair labor practice settlement for charter teachers to date. Back in June, the I Can charter network, based in Ohio, had to rehire four teachers and give seven teachers back pay for firing them during their 2013-2014 union drive. That settlement totaled $69,000.

“It’s unfortunate that these publicly funded schools often react so poorly when their teachers choose a union, and it’s even worse when they’re able to waste so much time and money union busting, something well outside the scope of the work the people of Chicago pay them to do,” says Brian Harris, a special education teacher in Chicago and the president of ChiACTS. “We often hear from charter operator groups that they’re ‘not anti-union but pro-teacher.’ One would assume that the ‘pro-teacher’ part would kick in after a mass illegal firing. Nonetheless, we’re very happy that we can move forward and finally begin to work on what is most important: making Urban Prep a better place to teach and to learn through empowering teachers.”

 

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.

The Uphill Battle of Unionizing a Philly Charter School

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Charter Employees Public or Private?

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

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

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

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

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

Other Questionable ASPIRA Expenditures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Need for Greater Oversight

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

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

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