Public school advocates and labor unions have been pressuring members on the Senate education committee to vote Tuesday against Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s controversial pick to head the federal education department. Pointing to the Republican billionaire’s track record in politics, advocacy, and philanthropy, critics argue that she represents an existential threat to public schooling.
Flying under the radar of this high-profile fight is a little-known labor battle escalating at one of the nation’s most well-regarded and politically powerful charter school networks. With 200 schools across the country, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, is known for boosting student achievement among low-income students, and elevating the “no excuses” style of teaching to the national stage.
In late June, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York City’s teachers union, filed a grievance on behalf of staff at the Bronx-based KIPP Academy Charter School, which became the first KIPP school in the city when it opened 16 years ago. (Eleven operate in New York City today, making KIPP one of the largest charter chains in the city.) The union accused KIPP Academy of failing to provide its employees with a host of basic labor rights they’re entitled to under the citywide collective-bargaining agreement. Specific grievances included a failure to provide teachers with summer vacation pay, an appropriate number of sick days, and sufficient rest periods on the job.
The battle has since metastasized into a wider legal fight, when KIPP Academy launched an ostensibly unrelated effort to encourage its employees to decertify their union.
KIPP’s academic model, defined by longer school days and school years, is also known for its high teacher turnover—fueling criticism that it’s an unsustainable model for school reform. A 2013 study published by the policy think tank Mathematica found KIPP teacher turnover was 21 percent during the 2010-2011 school year, compared with about 15 percent nationally for public schools. The study also found 86 percent of KIPP principals said teacher vacancies were hard to fill.
While most charter schools are staffed by non-union teachers, KIPP Academy is one of four so-called “conversion charters” in New York City, meaning it was formed by converting an existing public school into a charter. David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP Foundation, had launched KIPP as a program within P.S. 156 in 1995, and in the spring of 2000, he applied to expand it from a program into the entire school. As part of his application filed to the New York City Schools chancellor, Levin submitted a copy of an agreement between the UFT and the school district that said any conversion charter school “shall be subject to collective bargaining agreements for like titles or positions … including but not limited to salary, medical, pension and welfare benefits and applicable due process procedures.” The agreement also said the charter’s board of trustees could negotiate changes to the collective-bargaining agreement.
When KIPP Academy Charter School launched in September 2000, all of its initial employees had been previously employed by New York City Public Schools, all had worked in the P.S. 156 KIPP program, and all had been represented by the teachers union. KIPP Academy’s original students were all also former P.S. 156 students.
Last spring, 16 years later, about 20 staff members approached the UFT to raise concerns about their working conditions.
“Our day runs from 7:20 in the morning to 5:15 in the afternoon, so we’re there for nine hours and 55 minutes a day, and most of the time there are no breaks,” says Fatima Wilson, a fourth grade science teacher at KIPP Academy, and one of the teachers to approach the union. Even going to the bathroom becomes an ordeal, Wilson says, as teachers must inform the entire staff if they need to relieve themselves. “We often have to hold it in, and risk urinary tract infections, kidney infections. This is life as we know it,” she said in an interview with The American Prospect. “It winds up being a long day, an unsustainable day, but you know we still come to work because we love our kids.”
Wilson, who is in her second year at KIPP and her ninth year as a classroom teacher, wants to work at KIPP until she retires. She’s “embarrassed” by how terrible the staff turnover is, and says it’s because of the labor conditions.
The UFT filed its grievance on behalf of KIPP Academy teachers on June 28, 2016; when KIPP did not respond, the union sent a letter in late October announcing its intent to move forward with arbitration—a process of settling legal disputes outside of court. UFT filed for arbitration on November 7.
Shortly thereafter, KIPP representatives began talking with staff about decertifying the union—a process to revoke UFT’s legal representation.
Some KIPP Academy teachers had actually tried to do this once before. In 2009, employees filed a petition for union decertification, but under the law at the time, KIPP teachers would have needed to garner a third of the entire citywide public school bargaining unit—then 75,780 employees—to hold an election. In a 2010 hearing before the New York Public Employees Relations Board, an administrative law judge rejected the teachers’ petition as being “numerically insufficient.” KIPP Academy officials also tried to argue that the UFT didn’t even represent its staff since KIPP began as a program, not a school, meaning the charter shouldn’t be considered a real “conversion charter.”
New York’s PERB didn’t buy it. “Contrary to … KIPP Academy’s argument, the fact that one of numerous letters submitted with the charter application refer[s] to KIPP [as] a program, rather than a school, does not change the fact that the charter application specifically sought charter status based on the conversion of a public school,” the judge concluded in December 2010.
After the teachers union filed for arbitration this past November, KIPP filed for an injunction. In a district court hearing held on November 29, KIPP’s lawyer, Jeffrey A. Kehl, argued that UFT does not have representation status to file grievances on behalf of KIPP Academy teachers, pointing out that the union has not bargained any agreement, processed any grievance, or attended any meetings for KIPP teachers since the charter opened in 2000.
The judge, Carol Edmead, responded that none of what Kehl said alters the fact that the UFT has “been deemed and not overruled” as the teachers’ bargaining agent. She denied KIPP’s petition to thwart arbitration.
Since then, KIPP officials have held several meetings with their staff (what the union calls “captive audience meetings”) to discuss decertification, prompting the UFT to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board on January 19. The union’s complaint accuses the school of violating federal labor law, alleging, among other things, that KIPP encouraged teachers to end their relationship with the union, and threatened teachers with termination if they did not do so.
In response, school superintendent Jim Manley sent an email to staff at all 11 KIPP schools across the city, saying the NLRB complaint, along with the union’s subsequent press release and its demand for arbitration, “highlights our concern that engaging with the UFT will fundamentally alter the way in which we have worked together over the last 22 years to keep our promises to our kids and their families.” Going further, Manley said KIPP does not believe the academic success it has achieved would have been possible under a UFT collective-bargaining agreement.
Manley also said KIPP “disagrees” that the union represents its staff. He gave no mention to the PERB decision in 2010, or to the district judge’s recent decision in November. “We disagree both because of how we have operated since our chartering and because of recent changes to the law,” Manley said, referring to an NLRB decision issued last summer that says charter school teachers should be considered private employees. (If KIPP teachers are private employees, then the number of petition signers needed for UFT decertification may no longer be a third of the entire UFT bargaining unit, as it was in 2010. This question is unsettled and would likely need to be resolved by the federal labor board.)
KIPP NYC declined The American Prospect’s request for further comment.
One KIPP Academy teacher I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that teachers became interested in the union after seeing how KIPP responded to the filed grievance. This teacher was not one of the educators to approach the union last spring, but joined on this fall after seeing the administration’s reaction. “They didn’t want to work with the union, they didn’t want to hear what teachers were saying, and that made me passionate about joining the effort,” the teacher told me. “We felt disrespected.”
That feeling informed Wilson’s reaction to her superintendent’s suggestion that KIPP Academy might not be able to do as much for its students if teachers worked under a UFT contract.
“The only way we would sign on to work long days is because we believe in the mission, the vision, and we believe in the kids and families and each other,” she said. “Our success has nothing to do with the fact that [KIPP] is breaking laws by not giving us our right to duty-free lunch, our right to uninterrupted prep periods, the right apportion of sick days. Despite everything, despite the laws KIPP is breaking, we’re still persevering because we love our kids.”
The teacher who spoke anonymously echoed Wilson’s sentiments. “We love our school and students," she said, but “it just feels terrible to be silenced about things like your mental health and your daily life. The idea of having a real collective voice, to be part of the decision-making process—that’s what people are most interested in.”
The NLRB will now conduct an investigation into what happened at KIPP Academy, and if the federal labor board decides to issue a complaint, an administrative law judge will conduct a hearing to determine whether KIPP violated federal law.
On January 25, some of the school’s teachers filed a new union decertification petition with the NLRB. At least 30 percent had to sign on to file for an election, though it’s unclear at this time if all the signatories were employees represented by the UFT. A hearing is typically set before an election to address those concerns.
The UFT maintains that any decertification election should be seen as illegitimate, since it alleges that KIPP has already illegally encouraged, cajoled, and threatened their employees into voting against union representation.
KIPP clearly recognizes the high stakes in this battle. If KIPP Academy teachers prevail in their fight to improve their working conditions through the UFT collective-bargaining agreement, other KIPP charter school teachers in New York City, and even across the country, might consider organizing similar efforts. KIPP Academy teachers could also choose to negotiate modifications to their citywide contract—something unionized KIPP teachers in Baltimore have done. (In Maryland, all charter school teachers are automatically covered under their district’s collective-bargaining agreement.)
These sorts of charter school labor issues may soon surface at the federal level. Last week, Jason Botel, who founded a Baltimore KIPP charter school, was named as a senior education adviser to the White House. And Betsy DeVos’s nomination is still before the Senate.