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Cyber Charter First Of Its Kind To Unionize

Pennsylvania teachers say job security motivated their successful organizing effort

by Mary Ellen Flannery

It’s a rare combination, maybe even the first in the country: A cyber charter school with unionized employees.

But it won’t be the last. 

Last week, the employees of the PA Learners Online school, headquartered in Homestead, Pennsylvania, voted overwhelmingly to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association as a local affiliate. Its 76 members, including teachers and counselors, wanted a more secure job environment, they said.

“We wanted to make sure we had somebody to speak for us,” said English teacher Carol Mintus. With their current one-year contracts, “We could be let go for any reason that the administration deemed.”

The PA Learners Online school, which opened in 2001, serves more than 600 K-12 students through web-based classes taught by certified teachers, many who worked in more traditional brick-and-mortar schools first. It was chartered by the 10 school districts that it serves, but it’s actually managed by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a branch of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Its full-time and adjunct teachers spend part of their week working in an office, an AIU-owned building, and the rest telecommuting from home.

“We feel like we provide a very, very valuable service to students of our area, and we want to be in a position to continue to do that,” Mintus said.

 In addition to greater job security and legal protection, PALO teachers also will enjoy the professional development opportunities offered by PSEA, pointed out adjunct teacher Wayne McGonigal. And hopefully, through the collective bargaining of a new contract this fall, McGonigal’s adjunct colleagues will be able to achieve greater parity in benefits.

There are 4,600 charter schools in America, but few are unionized. And that’s the way some charter school proponents want to keep it. “If unions force charters to enter into collective bargaining,” wrote Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for an April opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, “one can only imagine how those schools will be able to maintain the flexible work rules that allow them to succeed.”

If, by flexible work rules, Greene means 12-hour school days, over-sized classes and the constant threat of dismissal, then maybe charter school teachers would prefer a more traditional success. Increasingly, it seems they do. 

“There are few fields where you’re accountable on so many levels – to the child, to the parent, to your administrator, to the state,” said PALO English teacher Joel Grimes. “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.”

What's Happening Around the Country

This week, Chicago got its first unionized charter school when teachers at the Chicago International Charter School voted for a union, hoping to bring workload and class sizes under control and stem teach turnover, they said. Meanwhile, on Tuesdays, the United Federation of Teachers in New York formalized its contract with teachers at a South Bronx charter school run by Green Dot, a charter school company that has unions in all of its schools.

As the number of charter schools continues to grow, and as President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan push aggressively for more charters, it’s likely that the teachers at PA Learners Online won’t be so unique for long.

In a speech Monday to a national charter school conference, Duncan said, “Charters are not inherently anti-union.” 

Nor are unions inherently anti-innovation – the claim of many anti-union, charter proponents. “I don’t see how (unionization) would have anything to do with being innovative,” Mintus said. “When you have teachers who feel safe and secure, you have teachers who are free to do what’s best for their kids.”

Think about a tightrope walker, Grimes suggested. You might be dazzled by their fabulous tricks, but “I promise you, the first time they tried that trick they had a safety net.”


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