Teach­ers unions look to char­ter schools but can’t beat in­de­pen­dence

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY RYAN M. MCDER­MOTT

Teach­ers unions in­creas­ingly are try­ing to union­ize char­ter schools na­tion­wide, an ef­fort school choice ad­vo­cates say will stymie the mis­sion and suc­cess the non­tra­di­tional schools have de­liv­ered to strug­gling school sys­tems.

Or­ga­niz­ers of char­ter schools, which re­ceive pub­lic fund­ing but op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently of a ju­ris­dic­tion’s pri­mary pub­lic school sys­tem, of­ten dis­cour­age union­iza­tion. They say in­de­pen­dence from unions al­lows their schools to be more flex­i­ble with as­sign­ments, hours and teacher pay, among other things.

“Char­ters are about flex­i­bil­ity from one-size-fits-all state poli­cies, district poli­cies and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments. They are about the flex­i­bil­ity to in­no­vate,” said Todd Ziebarth, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for state ad­vo­cacy and sup­port at the Na­tional Al­liance for Pub­lic Char­ter Schools.

“All that cuts di­rectly against union col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments,” he said.

The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers rep­re­sents ed­u­ca­tors in 231 char­ter schools in 15 states. That is a lit­tle more than 3 per­cent of the 6,633 char­ter schools counted across the coun­try in 2015, ac­cord­ing to data from the Na­tional Al­liance for Pub­lic Char­ter Schools.

Over­all, 10 per­cent to 12 per­cent of the na­tion’s char­ter schools are union­ized in some form. Most of those schools are

in states such as Mary­land that re­quire char­ter school teach­ers to be part of the same unions in which pub­lic school teach­ers par­tic­i­pate.

AFT Pres­i­dent Randi Wein­garten said char­ter school teach­ers or­ga­nize be­cause they “want a real part­ner­ship with their ad­min­is­tra­tion in the de­ci­sions that shape the lives of their kids, their school and them­selves.”

Na­tional pub­lic school unions such as the Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion and the AFT have long been push­ing for char­ter school ed­u­ca­tors to union­ize. Na­tion­ally, the NEA rep­re­sents about 3 mil­lion teach­ers and the AFT has more than 1.5 mil­lion mem­bers.

Mr. Ziebarth, of the NAPCS, said he thinks the NEA has re­duced its ef­forts to re­cruit schools for union­iza­tion but the AFT has dou­bled down, espe­cially in cities such as Chicago, Philadel­phia, New Or­leans and the District of Columbia.

The NEA did not re­spond to ques­tions about char­ter school union­iza­tion.

Ad­vo­cates for tra­di­tional pub­lic schools and those for char­ters have long dis­played a con­tentious re­la­tion­ship. Pub­lic school pro­po­nents have ar­gued that char­ters lack proper over­sight and con­sume gov­ern­ment re­sources that should be used for tra­di­tional schools.

Re­ports on the ef­fec­tive­ness of char­ter schools vary, but a re­search group at Stan­ford Univer­sity has been track­ing stu­dent per­for­mance in stan­dard­ized tests over the past decade.

Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Re­search on Ed­u­ca­tion Out­comes re­ported in 2013 that 25 per­cent of char­ter school stu­dents per­formed bet­ter in reading and about 30 per­cent showed im­prove­ments in math com­pared with pub­lic school stu­dents.

Not all of schools that the cen­ter stud­ied in 26 states and the District of Columbia showed sig­nif­i­cant gains. About 56 per­cent of the char­ter schools did no bet­ter than pub­lic schools in reading and about 40 per­cent didn’t out­per­form pub­lic schools in math, the Stan­ford study shows. In fact, about 19 per­cent of char­ters did worse than pub­lic schools in reading and 31 per­cent did worse in math.

A sec­ond Stan­ford study in 2015 fo­cused on ur­ban school dis­tricts and showed char­ter schools made sig­nif­i­cant gains. Re­searchers found that in 41 cities across the coun­try, char­ter school stu­dents learned about 40 more days worth of math and 28 more days worth of reading than in pub­lic schools in the same cities.

Char­ter ad­vo­cates say in­de­pen­dence al­lows schools to be tai­lored to stu­dents’ needs rather than fit the stu­dents into a longestab­lished sys­tem.

The Wash­ing­ton Teach­ers’ Union, which rep­re­sents pub­lic school teach­ers in the District of Columbia and is af­fil­i­ated with the AFT, has voiced sup­port for char­ter school unions.

“Be­ing a union mem­ber of 40 years al­lowed me and my col­leagues to ad­vo­cate more ef­fec­tively for our stu­dents and our pro­fes­sion. If I had not been a union mem­ber, I would not have had the courage to stand strong,” WTU Pres­i­dent El­iz­a­beth Davis said.

Two char­ter schools in the District have tried to union­ize this year. Cur­rently, none of the pub­lic char­ter schools in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal is union­ized.

In Fe­bru­ary, Paul Pub­lic Char­ter School teach­ers pe­ti­tioned to cre­ate a union through the AFT. Teach­ers cited high staff turnover and the need for a stronger voice. They wanted to be able to speak up about how to im­prove the school without the fear of be­ing fired. But plans at Paul stalled when not enough teach­ers were will­ing to pub­licly vote to union­ize.

Last week, a “de­ci­sive ma­jor­ity” of teach­ers at Chavez Prep Mid­dle School, a pub­lic char­ter school in North­west, filed a pe­ti­tion with the Na­tional La­bor Re­la­tions Board to hold a union elec­tion be­fore the end of the school year.

The AFT says the pe­ti­tion is the cul­mi­na­tion of a two-year or­ga­niz­ing ef­fort af­ter “teach­ers stood up to win more re­sources for kids, a real say in school de­ci­sion­mak­ing, and job se­cu­rity.”

Eighth-grade English teacher Ma­teo Sam­per said ad­min­is­tra­tors at Chavez Prep have been ded­i­cated and sup­port­ive and that union­iza­tion is not an in­dict­ment on them.

“We have banded to­gether in or­der to serve our stu­dents bet­ter. This union is not about my col­leagues, the staff or the ad­min­is­tra­tors; it’s big­ger than the sum of its parts,” Mr. Sam­per said.

The AFT has had its most suc­cess in Chicago, and its in­flu­ence al­ready is be­ing felt as sev­eral schools in the city were set to strike over salary ne­go­ti­a­tions.

The Chicago Tribune re­ported that Pas­sages Char­ter School, which is run by the Asian Hu­man Ser­vices non­profit, averted a strike late last month by ne­go­ti­at­ing a new teacher con­tract. Teach­ers at the Aspira Char­ter School Net­work reached a deal on their con­tract in March just a week be­fore they were set to strike. Teach­ers in the UNO Char­ter School Net­work carved out a deal in Oc­to­ber that averted a strike.

Ed­u­ca­tors at the No­ble Net­work of Char­ter Schools an­nounced in March that they would seek to form a union.

Still, Mr. Ziebarth said, the AFT and other groups have not been par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful in or­ga­niz­ing char­ter school teach­ers de­spite the big push.

“They’ve picked off schools here and there, but it pales in com­par­i­son to schools that aren’t union­ized,” he said.

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