What’s Really Behind the Drive to Unionize Charter School Teachers?

Union reps say empowered educators can better advocate for their students, but some education reformers say the push isn’t about the kids.

A protest organized by United Teachers Los Angeles. (Photo: Barbara Davidson/Getty Images)

Jul 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Established as the next frontier in low-bureaucracy education reform, publicly funded charter schools had been off-limits for teachers’ unions, which some politicians and ed-reform activists see as part of the problem with traditional schools. But a growing nationwide movement is pushing to prove unions must be part of the solution.

Labor activists from New Jersey to California have begun organizing teachers’ unions in charter schools and systems, pledging to help teachers do what’s best for their students and themselves. If successful, the unionization of charter school teachers would bring a powerful traditional element—collective bargaining, uniform work standards, and grassroots empowerment—to an education system designed to break with the past.

“More and more teachers who work in charters want to find a vehicle to exercise their voice” to demand what they need to do their jobs well, said Jim Testerman, director of organizing for the National Education Association. “It’s not just about bread-and-butter working conditions. Folks who work [in charters] don’t feel like they have a voice or the power” to fight bureaucratic rules they think make them less effective in the classroom.

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But education reform activists and charter school proponents are pushing back, arguing that unionization is more about the teachers than about the students, is masking union attempts to shore up diminished political clout, and has the potential to undermine charters’ kids-first mission. The movement to organize teachers, they warn, is a slippery slope to the not-too-distant bad old days of teacher strikes, hardball collective bargaining, and epic fights to get ineffective, underachieving teachers out of the classroom.

So, Why Should You Care? According to a study from the Center for Education Reform, 68 percent of K–12 public school teachers are unionized, compared with 7 percent of their charter school counterparts. Unlike traditional-school teachers, who work under long-term contracts hammered out between unions and district officials, charter teachers are at-will employees, working under individual, year-to-year contracts with little job security or control over their work environment.

Unions have had a complicated relationship with charters; initially, charter advocates didn’t want unions in their schools, fearing interference, and the unions were happy to comply. At one point the labor groups were actively campaigning against charters, declaring they undermined the bargaining power of teachers at traditional public schools.

The tide has clearly turned, however, with powerful national unions such as the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers sensing an opportunity to bolster their ranks. Union movements at charter schools in Chicago and other major cities have been successful; the latest front in the offensive is a Los Angeles–based charter school chain embedded in the nation’s second-largest school district.

Organizers with the California Teachers Association and United Teachers Los Angeles have their sights set on the 11,000-student Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, L.A.’s largest charter system. Backed by the 35,000-member UTLA, 70 teachers sent letters to alliance officials asking them to support unionization, got silence in response, and later unearthed a memo aimed at discouraging teacher participation in the workplace organizing attempt.

In a statement sent to TakePart, Jason Mandell, director of advocacy communications for the California Charter School Association, said that given the unions’ past positions against charters, teachers and parents should think twice before supporting organization.

“UTLA has a long, well-documented history of increasingly aggressive anti-charter positions. We do not believe that the union is being transparent and honest about their position on charter schools in their effort to organize charter schools,” Mandell said. “As a result, we think school communities approached by UTLA should consider carefully whether it is in the best interest of charter students, families, or communities to be associated with UTLA.”

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But the NEA’s Testerman, a former classroom teacher, argued that the overwhelming majority of his members are teachers first, and any classroom improvements they might demand have the students in mind. At the same time, a quality workplace and satisfied employees can move the student achievement needle further than charter school activists or administrators might expect.

“I woke up every morning wondering what I could do better—how I could help kids be successful,” Testerman said. “They say the unions don’t care about your kids. But the union is made up of professionals who care deeply” about their students.

Ultimately, Testerman said, unions pushing for better conditions for teachers can help reverse the imbalance between rich and poor schools, which could level the playing field for all public school students.

“That’s what everybody should be upset about,” he said.