Unions Move In at Chicago Charter Schools, and Resistance Is Swift
By REBECCA VEVEA Published: April 7, 2011 NY Times
In a trend that worries charter school operators, teachers at 12 of Chicago’s charters have formed unions over the past two years, and the Chicago Teachers Union is seeking to organize all 85 of the schools.
Union leaders say the growing charter movement is changing the landscape of public education and, with its disdain for unions, could leave teachers without a strong voice on issues like working conditions, teacher evaluations and curriculum.
Administrators and operators are battling back, arguing that unionization could undermine the basic premise of the charter school model: that they are more effective because they are free from the regulations and bureaucracies that govern traditional public schools.
Unionization of charter schools is a major step for the Chicago Teachers Union. Though charter teachers in other cities have formed unions, Chicago is one of the first where the public school system’s major union has directed the effort, according to the American Federation of Teachers.
The unions at the 12 charter schools are affiliated with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which is a joint program of the C.T.U., the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. At eight of the schools, teachers have contracts, at two they are in negotiation and at two they are fighting to be recognized by their school administrations.
“At some point, we would like all the charter schools to be part of C.T.U.,” said Jackson Potter, the union’s staff coordinator.
There were no charter school unions in 2008, when the Chicago Teachers Union formed its Charter Outreach Committee to knock on doors and help charter teachers organize.
Nationally, 604 charter schools, roughly 12 percent, have collective-bargaining agreements. But 388 of those schools are in states where the law dictates that charters be included in existing collective-bargaining agreements with local districts, according to data collected by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Illinois law does not require charter schools to be part of local collective-bargaining units.
Chicago could play a key role in shaping the relationship between teachers and charter school operators in a struggle likely to grow weightier and more complex as the number of unionized charter schools continues to grow.
The most recent fight between charter teachers and administrators is under way at Chicago Math and Science Academy on the North Side. Teachers at the widely acclaimed school have formed a union under Illinois law, but the administration has refused to begin negotiating a contract.
Academy administrators agree that teachers have a right to organize and bargain collectively but say they are not obligated to negotiate with the union because Chicago Math and Science Academy is private and falls under federal — not state — labor laws, according to a statement read at a recent meeting of the academy’s board.
Union leaders contend that because the school receives more than 80 percent of its financial support from public sources, the administration is obligated to recognize the union.
“The employers are gaining nothing by dragging it out,” said Shaun Richman, deputy director of organizing for the American Federation of Teachers, because there are only slight differences between state and federal law.
Many charter school teachers say they are concerned about how a union might change their working conditions.
“My fear is that it’s going to create a mountain of red tape,” said Timothy Stevens, an English teacher at the math and science academy, who started teaching there in 2006.
Some unionized teachers say unions have had little impact on the culture of their schools.
Brian Harris, a special-education teacher at the Chicago International Charter School Northtown Academy, where teachers and administrators signed their first contract in October 2009, said decisions were reached after discussions between the administration and a small group of teachers at the school, not an outside organization.
“As I’ve understood it,” Mr. Harris said, “the importance of the autonomy of charter schools is in the school’s ability to create and innovate around educational programs, things the union has no control over.”
Teachers in traditional public schools are covered by a single labor contract negotiated by the Chicago Teachers Union. But those affiliated with the Chicago Alliance of Charter School Teachers have individual councils that bargain with their administrators to reach contracts specific to the needs of each school.
“When most folks think of collective bargaining, it’s this 300-page monstrosity,” said Todd Ziebarth, vice president of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “I think they’re hesitant because they just think they will get sucked in to this one-size-fits-all thing.”
Union leaders say the new charter-school contracts tend to be no longer than 50 pages.
“A charter ultimately could be judged based on how thin they can keep those contracts by running schools that respect the profession of teaching, support student learning and ensure they continue to attract and retain top-quality teachers,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Leaders of the charter school movement in Chicago say they hope they can avoid widespread unionization by letting teachers have a voice in running their schools.
“I’d like to think that if we have really strong schools where they feel empowered and respected, there shouldn’t be a need, or teachers shouldn’t feel pressure, to unionize,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.
Some charter school administrators welcome the idea of a teachers union. In the Green Dot Public Schools network in Los Angeles, teachers and administrators “deconstructed the big old union contract” and created one that aligned with their vision, said Marco Petruzzi, president and chief executive of Green Dot.
Green Dot teachers are paid more than public school teachers and are granted more flexibility in how they teach and organize their schedules.
“Generalizing what teachers want is tough,” Mr. Petruzzi said. “We strive to keep decision making at the school sites.”
Too often, contracts for large urban school districts seem to take their cues from the manufacturing industry, dictating long lists of tasks and strict schedules to follow, Mr. Petruzzi said.
So far, no data has been gathered showing a correlation between student achievement and whether a charter school is unionized or not.
But for students and parents at Chicago Math and Science Academy, perhaps the most important concern is not whether teachers unionize, but rather what the conflict is doing to the school.
Carlos Tyler said the school had helped her two sons tremendously.
“I can’t say I’m for or against the union,” Ms. Tyler said. “I just want you to be here because of the kids. I’m begging the administration and the teachers, just make it work.”
· Times Topic: Charter Schools