By Scott Pearson | Originially Published by Education Post (link is external)
Most charter leaders look at the prospect of a unionized workforce with horror. Work rules, seniority-based placement, and onerous due process all are at odds with the charter model of flexibility, nimbleness, and a single-minded focus on kids’ learning.
But I’ve seen it work differently. Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles embraced unions from the outset, and negotiated a thin union contract appropriate for a charter school’s way of operating. Principals have substantial control over school assignments while respecting teacher input. Work rules are minimal and Green Dot teachers go the extra mile just like at non-union charters.
Pay is higher by about 5-10 percent, there are due process provisions that make it hard to fire a teacher for no reason, and there are steps to give teachers a second chance. But according to Green Dot CEO Marco Petruzzi, these are not overly burdensome and as often lead to struggling teachers gaining their footing as they do to a teacher exit.
There’s no question that a Green Dot principal has some greater constraints than at a non-union charter, but that principal benefits as well.
HOW CHARTER SCHOOLS CAN BENEFIT FROM UNIONS
First, by providing an organized way for teachers to express themselves, the union helps ensure that Green Dot management is aware of and can respond to teacher concerns. The result is better HR practices and ultimately lower teacher attrition.
Teacher attrition is a major issue at charter schools. At some charter schools in Washington, D.C., where I run the sole charter authorizer, turnover exceeds 50 percent. Charter leaders constantly search for ways to keep teachers longer. Might a good union contract reduce attrition and lead to a more seasoned and stable teaching force?
Second, unionizing can make it easier to hire teachers. Many charter schools struggle to hire more experienced teachers. Pay and benefits are part of this issue—charters receive lower funding and struggle to match district pay scales. But experienced teachers often seek a stable workforce, and may be attracted to a unionized school.
At the other end of the scale, many charters recruit teachers right out of college or grad school. A wrongheaded and pernicious narrative has spread across campuses that charter schools are “corporate privatizers.” Just recently, a talented college senior told me she was considering turning down an offer from one of the country’s best charter networks because “Black Lives Matter opposes charter schools.” It’s sad, but what better way to appeal to idealistic, progressive young people than to wear the union label?
Finally, unions can benefit charter schools with their community and political relations. In some jurisdictions, it might be easier for a unionized school to win a charter, or approval to expand, because many of the traditional opponents will stay silent, or be supporters. In Los Angeles, unions, including non-teachers unions like the SEIU, help Green Dot recruit new students. And unions provide connections to communities and political groups that most charter schools could never avail themselves of.
I’ll agree that for many, perhaps most charter schools, unionizing does not make sense. And having a union forced on you through a hostile organizing drive is probably never a good thing for a school. But chartering is in part about bringing a diversity of approaches to improving public schools. Working with unions is surely one viable, even attractive, approach.
Of the hundreds of new charter applications received by the DC Public Charter School Board over the past 20 years, not one has been from an applicant proposing from the start to be unionized. We’ve considered lots of other innovative ideas. Why not this one?
Rebuttal from by Mark Lerner on his blog, Parents Have School Choice Kids Win (link is external)
In a recent article published on EducationPost, Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board reacted (link is external) to a blog post (link is external) by Dirk Tillotson who contends that unions have a place in charter schools. Mr. Pearson agrees, stating that not one of the charter applications that has come before his organization has included unionized employees, and he believes that the time has come for this innovation to be employed just like others he has seen in his sector. He could not be more mistaken.
Mr. Pearson begins his argument with the assertion that unions can be a voice for employee concerns. But what I have seen from working with a bargaining unit in Washington, D.C. is that unions actually become a wall between management and staff. It inserts a third party between these two groups, and although you would imagine that the union looks out for the interest of its members exactly the opposite becomes true. The union, almost naturally, does everything it can to protect its place and power, often at the expense of those it is supposed to be supporting.
The PCSB executive director also appears to be a fan of the due process procedures that unions impose to protect their employees from being fired. But we sadly learned about the DCPS teachers who committed educational malpractice for decades without consequences because they were protected by the union. We’ve heard the stories of instructors who have been accused of wide ranging offenses collecting full pay (link is external) while sitting in rubber rooms killing time because they cannot be removed from the system.
In addition, right here in Mr. Pearson’s backyard, unions have fought the very reforms that have led many charters to close the academic achievement gap. The Teachers’ Union battled Kaya Henderson when she extended the school year (link is external) on a few of her campuses. They have obstructed implementation of the IMPACT teacher evaluation tool linking rankings partially to student performance. Most recently, the DC Teachers’ union went so far as to protest (link is external) Walmart’s plans to provide free school supplies, making the absurd contention that if company’s foundation had not been promoting the growth of charter schools there would be plenty of money for DCPS to purchase what it needed.
In fact, the unions have opposed charter schools at every opportunity. Mr. Pearson may assert that this is because they don’t utilize unionized teachers but there is a much more fundamental reason for their dislike of these alternative schools. Unions, by their nature, do not support the type of managerial entrepreneurship that put kids and families first.
Unions have no place in charter schools.