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We’re Public ... No, We’re Private

Charter school corporations take on public school teacher unions.

Michael Klonsky

On April 23, parents learn whether their children have been admitted to the Harlem Success Academy charter school system in New York. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

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What began as an attempt by small groups of urban charter school teachers in Chicago and New York to win collective bargaining rights has exploded into a national battle between teachers’ unions and operators of large charter chain schools.”

Under the Bush administration, charter management organizations with deep pockets and powerful supporters overpowered the small, independent teacher-run charter schools.

In Chicago, a successful drive to organize three schools run by the city’s largest operator, Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS), and its for-profit subcontractor, Civitas, was temporarily stalled when Civitas management argued that as a private employer it is not covered under rules set down by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB).

Since its founding in 2004 – with a $4-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – Civitas has touted itself as a public school,” especially when asking for state funding. But in April 2009, when a majority of Civitas teachers at the three Chicago schools signed union cards and the IELRB approved the Chicago Alliance of Charter School Teachers (ACTS) as their representative, Civitas changed its tune. Now the corporation claims that charters are essentially private schools and, as such, the IELRB has no power to recognize any union as the official bargaining unit for charter school teachers. Rather, Civitas insists the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) should decide whether or not to recognize union representation only after a secret-ballot vote. On June 2, the NLRB issued a narrow ruling upholding Civitas’ claim that it is a private entity and that its teachers are private employees.

What the decision demonstrates is that charter management organizations are private,” Simon Hess, chief executive officer of Civitas, told the Chi-Town Daily News. That’s part of the entrepreneurial spirit that has come to the public school system.”

The union views it differently, according to ACTS spokeswoman Gail Purkey: We accepted the ruling as a tactical compromise, only so we could quickly proceed with the election process, which we knew we could win.”

Union meets charter

Charter schools have grown exponentially in the past decade. Today, more than 4,600 charters employ more than 50,000 teachers nationally, and simmering discontent (and even open revolt among a significant group of young, activist teachers) has opened the field to new organizing campaigns by the teachers’ unions.

Union leaders have begun organizing more aggressively, recognizing that charter schools are not going away and keeping a wary eye on potentially competing unions like Service Employees International Union. They’ve also been nudged into this expanding field by recently elected American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten. As leader of New York’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT), Weingarten partnered with Green Dot Charter Schools operator Steve Barr to create two of New York City’s new unionized charter schools.

Barr, considered a maverick among charter management organizations (CMOs), started his original Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, taking over several large, dysfunctional inner-city high schools and converting them into smaller and, by some accounts, more successful charters. Green Dot accommodates union teachers with a short and concise contract to protect them from arbitrary firings and untenable working conditions. Its schools are intentionally smaller than L.A.’s traditional high schools, which are among the largest in the nation, with many exceeding 4,000 students. All Green Dot schools are locally managed and rely heavily on teacher autonomy, heavy parent participation and infusions of foundation dollars for their success.

When Barr met resistance from both the L.A. School Board and teachers’ union chief John Duffy, a majority of tenured teachers at Locke High School in Watts voted to leave United Teachers of Los Angeles and signed on with the California Teachers Association, the largest union in the state.

Weingarten and Barr’s current partnership in New York is at least partially responsible for encouraging recent organizing efforts at two New York City charters run by Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the largest chain of CMO-run schools in the nation with 66 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

In Brooklyn, the KIPP-AMP (Always Mentally Prepared) School has pushed back frantically, targeting pro-union teachers for firing and harassment, according to Leo Casey, the UFT’s vice president in charge of charter schools. The final outcome isn’t assured, as the union and KIPP negotiators struggle over a proposed 25-page contract modeled on Green Dot’s. According to Casey, the KIPP-AMP contract will place a limit on class size and teacher loads. It will give teachers greater say and put them on decision-making committees. There is also a strong just cause” standard, making it difficult to fire teachers without due process.

The charter school vision

Early school reformers and visionaries who created the first charter schools nearly 20 years ago saw charters as incubators of public school innovation, experimental pilot schools and teacher-led learning communities. These were progressives and education activists – hardly the hard-line, anti-union types who dominate charter school associations today. One of the most outspoken charter advocates at the time was none other than then AFT President Albert Shanker. The goal of early charter school advocates was school autonomy.

In 1991, Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota and a critic of the charter operators’ union-busting tactics, helped write the nation’s first state charter law. In the Minnesota charter law,” Nathan says, it is explicit that charter schools are public … there’s nothing inconsistent with our teachers being union teachers.” Nathan adds that moves to declare charters as private or efforts to block unionization are inconsistent with the charter ideal or good public policy.”

He points out that unionization wasn’t an issue back then because most charter teachers were already union members and felt ownership of the schools they had helped create. Often they constituted their own small boards along with parents and community members.

The idea was to create a decentralized space within the big, bureaucratic system. The trade-off was autonomy for accountability, meaning that if the new, small schools weren’t meeting the expectations laid out in the charter, the schools could lose their charters and be closed.

All of that began to change under the Bush administration’s ownership society and No Child Left Behind” policies. CMOs with deep pockets and support from conservative think tanks and foundations – as well as from Bush’s Department of Education – overpowered the small, teacher-run charters, not unlike the way large food chains have replaced mom-and-pop grocery stores.

The rise of the CMOs brought with it a top-down efficiency model and an aggressive management style. It also brought at-will firings of unprotected teachers and principals, 16-hour work days, pre-packaged curricula and abnormally high teacher attrition rates. In this new vision, charters were seen as business-model schools, complete with quotas for rapid Starbucks-like economies of scale.

President Barack Obama has broken with much of the ownership society legacy – especially in terms of support for school vouchers – though he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are both big fans of charter schools. Duncan has used his bully pulpit to pump the charter cause and has even threatened states with loss of stimulus funds if they fail to increase the numbers of charter schools in their districts. One big difference from the previous eight years is that the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) are now at the table pushing for collective bargaining rights for charter school teachers and other accountability measures for charter operators.

At a recent gathering of the nation’s governors, Duncan called on them to break through the dynamic that positions charters against unions.” After invoking Shanker’s name, he pointed out that the AFT represents something like 70 charters and the NEA represents another 40. So we should stop fighting over charter caps and unite behind charter accountability.”

Only in the past two years has the leadership of the AFT and NEA come to accept charter schools as a permanent reality. The questions of whether they indeed are public or private and whether their teachers can win the same collective bargaining rights are now being hotly debated, negotiated and litigated.

Charter teachers are saying they want a voice in their workplace,” UTF’s Casey says. Meanwhile, labor movement and public education eyes would do well to keep a close watch on the coming charter school battles, especially in large urban districts like New York and Chicago.

UPDATE, 8/3/09: Teachers at the three Civitas schools voted 73-49 to unionize in late June, joining the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers & Staff (Chicago ACTS), an affiliate of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and AFT. They are currently negotiating their contracts with Civitas Schools.

Alliance of Charter School Teachers and Staff
Green Dot
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Michael Klonsky is an educator, author, school reform activist and director of the Small Schools Workshop, a school outreach program associated with the University of Illinois-Chicago. He blogs at michaelk​lon​sky​.blogspot​.com.
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