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Teacher's unions at the frontier: Taking on charter schools
Buses - 09-08-14
The National Education Assocation's new president is making a push for unionizing charter schools, Education Week reports, working to counter a widespread myth that charter schools can't unionize. - photo by


The National Education Assocation’s new president is making a push for unionizing charter schools, Education Week reports, working to counter a widespread myth that charter schools can’t unionize.

Teacher union advocates told Education Week that they were slow to take on charters because many initially considered them a passing fad.

They have a lot of ground to make up. According to the Center for Education Reform, the percentage of unionized charter schools dropped from 12 percent in 2009 to 7 percent in 2013.

Education Week notes that one reason charters have so far escaped unionization is that the localized governance of small schools makes teachers feel like they have a voice.

“If you’re one school, one principal, then teachers feel like they have more say in the direction of the school,” Dara B. Zeehandelaar, research manager at the Fordham Institute, told Education Week. “But if it’s a network where personal decisions are not being made at the school level, I can see that perhaps leading to an increase.”

The bad blood between charters and teacher’s unions runs deep, currently highlighted by the ongoing guerilla war between Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy Charter Schools, and the new mayor of New York, Bill Di Blasio, who has aligned himself with teacher unions. “Why do teacher unions hate Eva Moskowitz?” asks Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine this week.

The divide between unionized schools and nonunion was highlighted last year by the Wall Street Journal, which quoted from Steven Brill’s “Class Warfare,” which compares one of Moskowitz’s charters to a public school that shares its building.

“The Harlem Success teachers’ contract drives home the idea that the school is about the children, not the grown-ups,” Brill wrote. “It is one page, allows them to be fired at will, and defines their responsibilities no more specifically than that they must help the school achieve its mission. Harlem Success teachers are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers on the other side of the building who have their levels of experience.”

Brill contrasts this to the public school which shares the building: “The union contract in place on the public school side of the building is 167 pages. Most of it is about job protection and what teachers can and cannot be asked to do during the 6 hours and 57.5 minutes (8:30 to about 3:25, with 50 minutes off for lunch) of their 179-day work year.”

But as Education Week points out, not every charter that unionizes looks like a New York Public School. Consider Green Dot Public Schools, for example, a chain of charters with 21 schools in California and one in Tennessee.

“We like to talk about our contract being a thin contract compared to a large district that can have thousands of pages,” Christina G. De Jesus, Green Dot’s president and the CEO of its California schools, told Education Week.

The Vergara case attacking teacher tenure, for example, would have impact on Green Dot. “If you think about the recent Vergara case, the first-in, last-out clauses, where in a lot of union contracts the younger teachers are the first out, we don’t have that,” De Jesus told Education Week.