Can Teachers Unions Help Online Charter Schools?

(Photo: AP/Melanie Stetson Freeman)

Students engage in online learning at a charter school in California.

In a major win for the movement to organize charter schools, a California state labor board recently ruled that teachers working for the state’s largest online charter network could form a union.

Teachers for the network, known as the California Virtual Academies, have been battling since April of 2014 with administration officials who refused to negotiate. That’s when more than two-thirds of the so-called CAVA network’s teachers voted in favor of unionizing.

Roughly 15,000 students attend CAVA’s 11 campuses across the state. CAVA administrators had argued that teachers at those disparate campuses should form their own individual unions instead of organizing a single union that would represent them all.

In a 77-page legal decision, the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) rejected this argument—setting the stage for CAVA teachers to move forward with their network-wide union. The California Teachers Association (CTA), a state affiliate of the National Education Association, will serve as their exclusive bargaining representative.

To teachers who have been agitating for a union, gaining the leverage to improve working conditions is a key first step to boosting student performance—something the online charter sector greatly needs. The teachers’ labor victory comes on the heels of several recent reports concluding that online charter schools are performing extremely poorly. Some 200,000 students take online classes through such institutions nationwide.

“Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” stated researchers in a report released by the Center for Research on Academic Outcomes on October 27. It was one of three different research studies released last month that arrived at similar conclusions.

Earlier this year, the progressive group In the Public Interest, which focuses on contracting and privatization, issued a report that looked specifically at problems within the CAVA network. It found evidence of poor academic outcomes, financial conflicts of interest, and insufficient supports for teachers, among other things.

CAVA is managed by K-12 Inc., a publicly traded company based in Virginia that made $55 million in profits last year. The K-12 Inc. schools offer classes to some 134,632 students across the country.

K-12 Inc. officials diputed the methodologies behind the critical reports. But the CAVA teachers who have been organizing for a union said the findings did not surprise them.

“I think those reports actually helped us because they just reinforced what we were already seeing with our own students,” said Stacie Bailey, a CAVA teacher on the organizing committee. “We’ve been trying to push the school to focus more on instruction for a long time.”

Bailey actually spent several years working as a CAVA administrator, until she grew so frustrated with how things were run that she went back into teaching.

“Personally, I joined the union drive because I just see that teachers do not have a voice at our school,” said Bailey. “It’s too top-town. I tried to give teachers that voice while working as an administrator, but I was not successful.”

Working for an online charter school poses some unique challenges for teachers looking to organize. “We engage in the workplace from our own homes, we are isolated, we do not see each other,” said Jen Shilen, a high school history and economics teacher who worked at CAVA from the fall of 2012 up until this past summer. “The process of building rapport with colleagues can be challenging.”

CAVA teachers say they grew interested in the idea of forming a union when their workloads and responsibilities spiked dramatically beginning in the fall of 2013—particularly when they were asked to perform more clerical duties. More paperwork meant less time to work directly with students, teachers say. Organizing talks kicked off at the end of 2013, and CAVA teachers soon approached the California Teachers Association for assistance.

“Some of us used to work for union protected schools, so we knew who to talk to,” explained Shilen. CTA helped the 700 teachers fan out across the state to coordinate with one another; helped them with press outreach, and connected teachers with legislators.

The union vote took place in the spring of 2014. “It was rather surprising that it was as successful as it was,” remarked Bailey. “We had to call every teacher, and send them a petition and they had to print it, sign it, and mail it back to us. That’s a lot to ask of someone, and we ended up getting a super majority voting for the union.”

But CAVA administrators rejected the petition, insisting that the teachers did not constitute one legal entity. “CAVA’s argument was that CAVA does not exist,” said Shilen, wryly.

What came next was a protracted legal battle, including five days of hearings in a state administrative court in February and March, with lawyers filing their legal briefs in May. In June, 16 teachers filed 69 complaints against CAVA on a variety of grounds, including violations student privacy laws, misuse of federal funds, and inadequate services to students with disabilities. CAVA’s senior head of schools, Katrina Abston, dismissed the complaints.

Teachers have waited since mid-May for the decision from the state Public Employment Relations Board, which arrived on October 30. “We were hoping the decision would come in July, about six weeks after the lawyers turned in their briefs,” said Bailey. “It took five months.”

CTA President Eric Heins praised the PERB decision in a statement and urged CAVA administrators not to appeal this “historic ruling.” Now, Heins stated, “teachers can begin to address the problems that are hurting their students, such as insufficient time spent on instruction, high teacher turnover, and too much public money going out of state.”

The CTA’s support for CAVA teachers has raised some eyebrows, particularly since the union has staked out some anti-charter policy positions over the past decade. As I reported in The American Prospect in June, the relationship between charter teachers and unions is evolving and complicated.

CAVA administrators, who did not return The American Prospect’s request for comment, have moved to appeal PERB’s decision.

“The ruling states CTA may seek collective representation of all teachers at all CAVA charter schools, notwithstanding that CAVA is not itself an established public school employer,” Abston told the San Bernadido Sun this month.

But CAVA teachers are unfazed.

“Even if they’re going to appeal, we’re still a union; it doesn’t stop our forward momentum,” said Bailey confidently. “We’re not worried about it.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that K-12 Inc. schools offer classes to 14,500 students nationwide. In fact, the number is 134,632. 

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