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Identity Crisis

Maybe “unionized charter school” is not a contradiction in terms.


By Mary Ellen Flannery

Abigail Garcia has a problem.

When Garcia, president of the Asociación de Unidos Maestros—the teachers union at Green Dot charter schools in Los Angeles—meets other union officials, they can’t believe she leads a “real” union. (The kind with teeth.) Everybody knows that charter schools kill unions, right?

Abby Garcia, Green Dot’s union president, also teaches college readiness skills to her high school students—all of whom she expects to attend college.

Photo by David Young-Wolff

No, no, no, we are a real union, she protests. And then off she goes to meet other charter school educators, who grimace at her union title. Because everybody also knows that unions kill charter schools, right?

“We are a progressive union! We believe in the Green Dot mission,” Garcia tells them. Innovation, small learning communities, increased accountability—and unionism: Is there a contradiction here? Garcia and her colleagues don’t think so. And neither do thousands of other NEA members in union charter schools from California to Connecticut.

Increasingly, their position—as union pioneers in an environment traditionally hostile to organized labor—isn’t so unusual. This past year has seen the conversion of well-known charter schools like KIPP Amp Academy in Brooklyn and Chicago International Charter School, both organized by the American Federation of Teachers, as well as new NEA affiliates at charter schools in New York and Pennsylvania.

And it’s not likely to stop there.

“You’re going to see more and more charter schools with union educators,” promises NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “We’re going to hold them to the same high standards that every school should be held to, and they’re going to prove that innovation and unionism are best friends.”

With unionization come certain rights, teachers say. At the top of the list, teachers look less like interchangeable parts to their administrators and more like people who have a say in decisionmaking.

“We wanted to make sure somebody would speak for us,” says Carol Mintus, a teacher at Pennsylvania’s PA Learners Online, which unionized last year. “To not have somebody advocating for you, to not have a formal grievance process, to not have lawyers available to you—it’s really hard for me to imagine working without a union,” adds PALO teacher Joel Grimes.

That old handbook at the Pembroke Pines charter schools—the one that said the rules can be changed at any time? Not now. Not since its faculty voted 181 to 46 to join the Broward Teachers Union in 2007.

Charter school teachers in unions say their salaries have become more competitive, their benefits better defined, and their jobs more stable. Last year, a Vanderbilt University study found that charter school teachers were 132 percent more likely to leave the profession than their counterparts in regular public schools, and the odds of their switching schools was 76 percent higher. Union teachers say they’re less likely to go. They also say their students are succeeding—because better teaching conditions lead to better learning conditions.

But there’s very little data to show exactly how unionization impacts salary, working conditions, or student achievement. Those questions, and others, are the subject of research recently undertaken by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). While their current project remains very much a work in progress, a few common themes have emerged, says legal analyst Mitch Price.

“One, charter school unionization isn’t a single concept. It’s hard to talk about them as this or that because it really depends on the situation. Was the school unionized by law? (Some states and districts require it.) Was it unionized by design? (Like Green Dot, for example.) If it was unionized after years of operation, what were the reasons?”

Another common theme: What really matters is what’s in the contract. “Rather than, ‘is unionization good or bad,’ it’s going to be about particular contract provisions,” Price says. And that can vary widely. At Green Dot, teachers don’t care much about tenure, but they do want more power on school committees. In Buffalo, where the New York State United Teachers have organized eight of the city’s 15 charter schools, “each and every contract is unique,” NYSUT organizer Mike Deely says. Due process mattered a great deal at the one where eight teachers were summarily dismissed last year despite great evaluations.

“That union will ruin you.”

In 1997, four Connecticut teachers opened the charter Interdistrict School for Arts and Communica­tion (ISAAC) in New London. Their mission: To reduce racial and economic isolation and incorporate fieldwork, service learning, and, most of all, arts and communication.

“We don’t do worksheets,” says head teacher Kate Fioravanti.

Their findings: Success! ISAAC graduated its first class of eighth-graders in 2006 and its student body sailed from 45 to 280. But success breeds its own kinds of problems—and it became necessary to hire a director who had her own priorities. At the same time, while ISAAC teachers have never minded the 10-hour work days or duty lunches, they got to thinking that it might be nice to have such things as … say, family medical insurance.


Kate Fioravanti, head teacher at the ISAAC school in Connecticut, believes every teacher deserves an advocate—no matter where they work.

Photo by Tom Hurlbut

Nearly five years ago, they joined the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) and bargained their first contract, which did include family medical and life insurance. Fioravanti recalls their director quit in a huff with this parting shot: “That union will ruin this school.”

Did it? Absolutely not.

“I don’t understand how anybody could think having an advocate could be harmful,” Fioravanti says. “Our relationship with CEA has brought new professionalism to the school.”

But that former director isn’t alone. There are charter school proponents who really don’t like you. That is, they don’t like Association members, not at their schools where they believe you’ll just ruin everything. Take the researcher who blogged about life in an imaginary unionized charter school: “Need to change a light bulb in your classroom? Page 844, paragraph five [of your contract] clearly states that you must call a union electrician. You kids sit quietly with your heads down in the dark until he arrives. It will be any day now.”

But there are extreme points of view on all sides of the charter school debate, Price says, and those extreme positions haven’t changed much in the past few years. What is changing, he says, “is that there is probably a growing number of people in the middle who are warming.”

And, in many places, the rhetoric isn’t nearly so heated. In Wisconsin, about 169 of the state’s 206 or so charter schools are unionized.

Where it’s warm

Abigail Garcia’s school, Ánimo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood, California, is one of 19 high schools run by the Los Angeles-based charter school organization Green Dot. This year, for the third year in a row, it grabbed a spot near the top of the U.S. News and World Report list of 100 Best High Schools in America.

Its teachers don’t want a 1,200-page contract. In fact, the one they wrote is 33. And it doesn’t provide tenure—last year, six Green Dot teachers were let go and the union opposed none of those terminations. When students deserve better, they should get it, Garcia says. Green Dot teachers expect to work into the evening, staff after-school clubs, and mentor kids in quiet classrooms. “We call it a professional work day,” says Green Dot director of human resources Peter Kilmarx.

It’s an intense place to work, teachers agree. Expectations are high, and every teacher is held accountable for the success of their 100 percent minority, inner-city student body. But Alícia Gonzalez, a math teacher who came to Ánimo Leadership from a school with 3,000-plus kids, also found her new campus to have a real spirit of collaboration with a strong emphasis on professional development.

“My learning curve has shot way up,” she says.

Is it a real union? Definitely. The two sides bargain their contract—and it’s not all milk and honey. At a recent union meeting, AMU’s leaders sat in a classroom discussing the need for a stronger voice in school operations. Why should a principal be able to choose her budget priorities? Don’t classroom teachers know better what they need? “We want to see the budget, help frame the budget, and not just be told to buy our own LCD projector because there’s no money,” argued Monica Mayall, a teacher at one of Green Dot’s newly transformed Locke High School campuses.

There is a natural tension between any union and management, Green Dot’s Kilmarx notes. But the bottom line, he says, is that any relationship can work well “so long as we’re [all] motivated by what’s the right thing to do for students.”

Charter schools and unions around the country

Eugene, OR In 2008, employees at the Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School voted to unionize after the forced resignation of one teacher and the reprimand of another, with hopes that a contract could better define due process and academic freedom. It became the first charter school in Oregon with an independent union.

Chicago, IL Teachers at Northtown Academy unionized after management unilaterally increased their teaching load and working hours. Their new contract offers a salary raise of 10 percent on average.

Norwich, CT The Integrated Day Charter School opened in 1997 as one of six NEA-endorsed charter schools around the country. “CEA offers so many resources to help teachers individually and collectively, from professional development workshops … to training on new regulations,” said a school founder.

The Bronx, NY This past summer, Green Dot opened a school in the Bronx, signing a 29-page contract with the United Federation of Teachers. It offers salaries about 14 percent higher than the rest of the city, but does not provide tenure.


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