When Charters Go Union


When Charters Go Union

Most charter school funders hate unions and unions generally hate charters. But more and more charter teachers want to unionize, and labor is helping them do it. 

June 18, 2015

This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here. 

The April sun had not yet risen in Los Angeles when teachers from the city’s largest charter network—the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools—gathered outside for a press conference to discuss their new union drive. Joined by local labor leaders, politicians, student alumni, and parents, the importance of the educators’ effort was not lost on the crowd. If teachers were to prevail in winning collective bargaining rights at Alliance’s 26 schools, the audience recognized, then L.A.’s education reform landscape would fundamentally change. For years, after all, many of the most powerful charter backers had proclaimed that the key to helping students succeed was union-free schools.

One month earlier, nearly 70 Alliance teachers and counselors had sent a letter to the administration announcing their intent to join United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the local teachers union that represents the 35,000 educators who work in L.A.’s public schools. The letter asked Alliance for a “fair and neutral process”—one that would allow teachers to organize without fear of retaliation. The administration offered no such reassurance. Indeed, April’s press conference was called to highlight a newly discovered internal memo circulating among Alliance administrators that offered tips on how to best discourage staff from forming a union. It also made clear that Alliance would oppose any union, not just UTLA. “To continue providing what is best for our schools and our students, the goal is no unionization, not which union,” the memo said.

The labor struggle happening in Los Angeles mirrors a growing number of efforts taking place at charter schools around the country, where most teachers work with no job security on year-to-year contracts. For teachers, unions, and charter school advocates, the moment is fraught with challenges. Traditional unions are grappling with how they can both organize charter teachers and still work politically to curb charter expansion. Charter school backers and funders are trying to figure out how to hold an anti-union line, while continuing to market charters as vehicles for social justice.

Though 68 percent of K-12 public school teachers are unionized, just 7 percent of charter school teachers are, according to a 2012 study from the Center for Education Reform. (And of those, half are unionized only because state law stipulates that they follow their district’s collective bargaining agreement.) However, the momentum both to open new charter schools and to organize charter staff is growing fast. 


IRONICALLY, THE FIRST MAJOR PROPOSAL to establish charter schools came from the nation’s most famous teacher union leader. At the National Press Club in 1988, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave a speech outlining a “new type of school.” Shanker envisioned publicly funded but independently managed schools, which would be given the space to try out new educational approaches and would continue to receive public dollars so long as their approaches proved to be effective. These schools would act as educational laboratories, testing grounds of new and better practices that could then be adopted by traditional public schools. A few months after his speech, Shanker dubbed his idea “charter schools,” in a reference to explorers who received charters to seek new land and resources. Later that year, the 3,000 delegates at the national AFT convention endorsed Shanker’s charter idea.

At its conception, then, unions were integral to the charter movement. The thinking was that without job security and elevated teacher voice, which unions help ensure, how else would charter teachers feel comfortable enough to take educational risks in their classrooms? In Shanker’s original vision, as Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter trace in their book A Smarter Charter, not only were charter teachers to be unionized, but union representatives were to sit on charter authorizing boards—the entities tasked with overseeing charter accountability—and all charter school proposals were to include “a plan for faculty decision-making.” In return, certain union regulations would be relaxed in order to facilitate greater experimentation.

The charter movement has grown from a single Minnesota school, which opened in 1992, to more than 6,700 schools spread across 42 states and the District of Columbia. Today, charters educate more than 2.5 million children—more than 5 percent of all public school students. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), charter enrollment has increased by 70 percent over the past five years. Public support is growing, too: A 2014 PDK/Gallup survey revealed that 70 percent of Americans support charter schools, up from 42 percent in 2000.

Somewhere along the way, however, charter proponents—conservative and liberal alike—decided that having no unions was an important ingredient for charter school success. By making it easier for principals to hire and fire staff, the proponents argued, schools could better ensure that only high-quality teachers would be working in the classrooms. The blame for the widening achievement gap between black and white students, the proponents believed, rested with underperforming teachers and the unions that defended them. Over time, advocates came to see charters not as institutions designed for collaboration with public schools, but as institutions that could compete against them, perhaps even replacing public schools entirely.

Sean Kitchen/Raging Chicken Press

Olney Charter High School Teacher Emily Guck at a rally outside ASPIRA's Pennsylvania headquarters in Philadelphia. 

As the charter movement developed a more adversarial bent—one that no longer spoke of productive partnerships with public schools, and one that championed union-free workplaces—traditional teachers unions grew understandably defensive. The AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s two largest teachers unions, moved to openly oppose charter schools. Only in the past few years has their stance toward charters begun to soften. Beginning in 2007 and 2008, the AFT set up a national charter-organizing division, and today has organizers in seven cities: L.A., Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, and Philadelphia. Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing, says that as more charter teachers began approaching her union, the NEA started to see them as educators who should be treated no differently from anyone else. Both unions also recognized that such new national initiatives as the Common Core standards and President Obama’s Race for the Top meant that teachers at charter and traditional public schools faced similar challenges that the unions could help them address.

But organizing charter school teachers while opposing the establishment of more charter schools is no simple balancing act. “How could I support a union that for the last ten years spent a good portion of their time attacking our right to exist?” asks Craig Winchell, an Alliance high school teacher who turned out in opposition to April’s press conference. “They’ve spent the last ten years both supporting anti-charter school board members and fighting in Sacramento against what we do.” Especially when opening a new charter is paired with closing down a traditional school, unions are typically found rallying in protest. Critics argue that unions’ newfound interest in charter teachers, then, is just a ploy to collect more membership dues.

Having abandoned their outright opposition to charters, many of the AFT and NEA’s recent efforts have been focused on shutting down low-performing charter schools, especially within rapidly expanding for-profit chains, and pushing for a set of national charter accountability standards. While the thought of national guidelines for charter school makes many charter advocates squirm, the public overwhelmingly supports the idea. According to a survey conducted this year by In The Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy, 89 percent of Americans favor requiring charter management organizations to hold open board meetings with the public, as well as requiring all teachers who work in charter schools to meet the same level of training and qualifications as those in traditional public schools. Eighty-six percent favor requiring greater transparency over charters’ annual taxpayer-funded contracts and budgets, and 88 percent favor requiring state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances.

In 2014, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University released a report that documented a host of charter school problems, ranging from uneven academic performance to funding schemes that destabilized neighboring schools. The report laid out national policy recommendations designed to promote increased accountability, transparency, and equity.

The AFT and NEA came out strongly in support of the Annenberg standards, and have been working to promote them to state legislatures and school boards around the country. Leaders in the charter world, however, were less than pleased. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), an organization that seeks to influence the policies and practices of state authorizers, called the standards “incomplete, judgmental, and not based on research or data.” Michael Brickman, then the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, said the Annenberg standards would stifle charters’ innovation by “bludgeoning them with regulation.” He accused the authors of “standing in the way of progress” with their “overzealous statutory recommendations.” (The president and CEO of NAPCS, Nina Rees, told me she actually likes the Annenberg standards, but doesn’t know if they should be adopted across the board.)


IN 2007, BRIAN HARRIS started working as a special education teacher at the Chicago International Charter School’s Northtown Academy. “I’d just got out of grad school and was happy to have a job,” Harris says. “It didn’t bother me that it was non-union because it wasn’t something I paid attention to.” In May of 2008, the company’s CEO announced that in the following school years, teachers would have to teach a sixth class in lieu of supervising an academic lab (which is similar to study hall). Teachers were surprised and upset at what amounted to significant change in working conditions. Those who didn’t like the new arrangement, the administration told them, could find some place else to work.

It was an eye-opening moment for Harris, and he realized that this is what it meant to have a workplace without an organized staff. “We didn’t know [this CEO], we didn’t have a lot of connections with management, and people were unsure what the line of authority was,” Harris says. So with the help of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS), a union connected to the AFT and its Illinois affiliate, Harris and his colleagues launched a 13-month organizing drive. Yet even when presented with union affiliation cards from 75 percent of the faculty, administrators refused to recognize their union; they insisted that the teachers would have to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election. The teachers did just that, won the election, and Northtown became the first unionized charter school in Chicago.

Today, Harris serves as president for Chicago ACTS, which has grown to represent 32 charter schools and nearly 1,000 teachers. Chicago ACTS’s relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), an AFT local known for its militant opposition to school privatization and charter school expansion, has also evolved substantially over the years.

CTU was initially ambivalent, even suspicious, of these new unionized charter teachers. But Chris Baehrend, an English teacher at Chicago’s Latino Youth High School and vice president of Chicago ACTS, says this wariness was not reciprocated—indeed, ACTS was inspired by CTU and looked to it as a model. In the spring of 2012, as CTU was gearing up for its successful, eight-day strike against Chicago’s school district, ACTS teachers began to discuss how they could best offer CTU support. They decided to put forth a strongly worded resolution at the AFT’s national convention that summer. In it, the charter teachers called for a moratorium on new charter schools and an end to school closings and turnarounds “until their system-wide impact on educational outcomes can be properly assessed.” Baehrend and Harris worked with CTU leaders to finalize the resolution’s language, which was approved, though not adopted as official AFT policy.

The resolution was the first joint action that Chicago ACTS took with CTU. Since then, the two unions have convened for joint delegate trainings, workshops, and even parties. “We’re making conscious efforts to make connections and to encourage charter and traditional public school teachers to be joined in solidarity,” says Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of CTU. Sharkey himself turned out to a press conference in February to publicly support two Chicago charters in the midst of organizing.


ON APRIL 30, EDUCATORS AT North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted to form a union. The vote came after a long three-year battle with their employer, ASPIRA. With a final tally of 104–38 in favor of unionization, Olney became one of the largest unionized charter schools on the East Coast.

When the Olney campaign first went public, as Jake Blumgart reported for The American Prospect back in 2013, teachers went to deliver their union petition, signed by 65 percent of the staff. “[The principal] not only refused to accept it, but chased them down the hallway to give it back,” Blumgart wrote. That was just the start of a full-bore, anti-union campaign: Administrators held closed-door, one-on-one meetings with teachers and staff, threatened teachers with layoffs and benefit cuts, put anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, required teachers to attend mandatory meetings with anti-union consultants, and announced that teachers could be fired or disciplined for remarks they made about ASPIRA on social media.

When I asked Sarah Apt, an ESL teacher at Olney, if she ever tried to talk to management about workplace issues before going the union route, she laughed. “We’ve had a million committees and conversations,” Apt says. “You can have a conversation with them now! But without your coworkers standing behind you, the [outcome of] the conversation depends entirely on the whims of the administration.”

Apt says she and her coworkers want to build a union that will agitate for themselves and their students, in collaboration with parents and the community. “Chicago [where striking teachers won high levels of community and parental support] has set a new standard for what can be done with a teachers union in the United States,” she says. Parents have been standing behind the Olney organizing effort, from showing up to support teachers at school board meetings to making calls to the administration on their behalf. More than 40 local businesses also signed a petition backing the teachers’ campaign.

Though regional characteristics and local politics shape each charter school’s distinct organizing drive, the general hopes, challenges, and frustrations expressed by charter teachers I spoke with were strikingly similar.

Greg Swanson, an English teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School, the top-performing charter school in Louisiana, echoes Apt’s frustrations about the power dynamics that can inhibit teachers from effecting change in a non-unionized school. (New Orleans has the highest charter density in the country, claiming roughly 90 percent of the city’s public school students.) Before Ben Franklin High’s teachers decided to unionize, Swanson says, they tried different ways to increase teacher voice, such as forming a committee to advocate for teacher and student issues, including better teacher course loads, increased curriculum coordination, and more academic supports for incoming students. “When we brought [our ideas] to the attention of the administration, we were just told that they can deal with some things and not others,” Swanson recalls. “Without the pressure of the union, [our voices are] not heard in the same way.”

In March, after 85 percent of his Ben Franklin colleagues backed a petition in support of unionization, Swanson and his coworkers signed the first collective bargaining agreement for New Orleans teachers since Hurricane Katrina. Teachers not only won greater pay-scale transparency in their contract but also the right to have department chairs elected by their colleagues rather than appointed by their CEO. They won increased time within the school day to prepare lesson plans, greater job security, and a fairer teacher evaluation system.

Ben Franklin has long been regarded as an educational leader in Louisiana, and Swanson’s team understood that their organizing had consequence for the broader political landscape. “We were looking to improve things in our school, but we were also very much aware of the larger implications of this for New Orleans, which is the testing ground for going full-charter,” said Swanson. With this in mind, they worked to develop a contract that they hope can become a model for charter teachers across the city. Teachers at another local charter, Morris Jeff Community School, followed their lead, and are currently negotiating their own contract.

Many New Orleans charter advocates are wary of the turn toward unionization, but some leaders are urging the community to stay calm. Andre Perry, an education policy expert, wrote in The Hechinger Report that New Orleans reformers should be open to unions given the Crescent City’s high rate of teacher turnover. Ten years after Katrina, he wrote, “we’re not going to fire our way to educational success.


EVERY YEAR, THE NATIONAL Alliance of Public Charter Schools publishes a rating system that evaluates each state’s charter law. While charters with collective bargaining agreements are still considered welcome within the charter school family, state laws receive a higher NAPCS score when they allow administrators to hire and fire teachers free from the constraints of a collective bargaining agreement. Nina Rees, the NAPCS president, says her organization places a premium on this because charters should have the freedom not only to hire and fire, but also to expand the school day and workload “without having to constantly negotiate with a centralized bureaucracy.”

Jake Blumgart

Teachers and staff from Olney Charter High School at an ASPIRA board meeting in 2013. 

Terry Moe, a Stanford political scientist and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, thinks that while “teacher voice” is a necessary component to any functioning organization, teachers unions use their power in ways that are not in the best interests of students. Moe and Rees both take the position that in the modern world, unions are not necessary in charter schools, either because there are already sufficient employee protections in place in our legal system, or just because the incentives within the charter world are such that there’s not really all that much to worry about.

“I’m in a nonprofit space,” Rees says. “Why is it that teachers need to have the right [to be in a union]? Why is it that teachers need these protections immediately when they enter the organization?” If one wants some of the protections and benefits that unions offer, she points out, there are other resources available to teachers. The Association of American Educators (AAE), for instance, is a non-unionized professional educators’ organization that offers a “modern approach to teacher representation and educational advocacy.” Membership in AAE can bring you things like liability insurance, supplementary insurance, legal protection, and employment rights coverage. It cannot, however, bring you leverage with your employer.

In A Smarter Charter, Potter and Kahlenberg recommend giving teachers an opportunity to vote on whether or not to form a union when a charter school first opens, rather than having non-union environments be the default option. Where a school has no union, they suggest reserving seats for teachers on charter school boards. But Rees is no fan of these ideas either. “If you start off with the premise that management is against the employee before you even start the enterprise,” she says, “I think it sets the wrong tone.”

The generally small size of charters, Moe adds, also obviates the need for unions. “In small schools, where everyone knows one another and they can talk about their issues …  you’re really not likely to get the same dissatisfaction that would drive people to unionize in the great number of charter schools,” he says.

Leading charter advocates echo Moe and Rees’s sentiments. Chester Finn, a conservative policy analyst, declared, “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Geoffrey Canada, a charter founder hailed as a pioneer by Obama, said that union contracts, “kill innovation; it stops anything from changing.”

Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of NACSA, doesn’t buy the argument that unions are structurally incompatible with charters. “There are people who politically don’t want unions or don’t want charters to be unionized, but [allowing workers to choose] is the law of the land.” The key question, he argues, is whether unionization ends up helping or hurting student achievement—a question that will be resolved empirically. “If teachers want to organize and negotiate for certain things, go ahead,” he says, because in the end, the charter school has to work for students or else its charter will be revoked.

So are unions compatible with fulfilling the promise of charter schools?

I sat down with Juan Salgado, the president and CEO of Instituto Del Progreso Latino, a nonprofit educational organization in Pilsen, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, to learn what it’s been like for him to oversee two charters that have unionized with AFT. Salgado believes that unions have been tremendous assets for his schools, particularly around some of the more fraught questions of wages and benefits. Can such issues be resolved “without a union?” he asks. “Yeah. But can we move forward to actually run a school? Probably not.” The mutual buy-in at the end of the negotiating process, Salgado said, created a better spirit at his schools.

Though Salgado was explicit that he disapproved of the way the union conducted its first organizing campaign—the organizers caricatured him as an evil boss, he says, solely to advance their strategy—he still feels the resulting unions, full of organized, passionate people, are no hindrance to excellence. “Unions ask a lot of questions! And that’s OK,” he says. “Critical questioning causes reflection and makes sure you have very good answers. And they demand transparency, and transparency is important. It’s a value that we should all have.”

To date, the best existing research suggests that charter unionization has very little impact on student achievement. Labor economist Aaron Sojourner and education policy researcher Cassandra Hart looked at California charters several years before unionization and then several years after; they found no significant difference in student performance over time, though there was a temporary dip during the initial unionization year, which tends to be a more disruptive period.

Moreover, as Potter and Kahlenberg document in A Smarter Charter, other research on unions and traditional public school performance suggests that unionization either has small positive effects or no measurable effects at all on the achievement of most students. “The research does not paint a picture of unions as an enemy to student achievement,” Kahlenberg and Potter conclude.

That said, there are other ways to think about the way a union might impact a school. Higher teacher salaries, more transparent pay scales, and greater control over working conditions may help attract more qualified candidates to teach. Research does show that increased teacher voice helps decrease teacher turnover, and it also shows that high teacher turnover costs schools millions of dollars, disrupts student learning, and weakens institutional capacity. Many objectives that teachers hope to achieve through unionization are grounded in a desire for greater stability. “We want to stick around, we want to see our freshman graduate, we want to see their siblings and cousins come, we want to make this our home,” says Apt, whose Olney Charter High School has had high teacher turnover from year to year.


IN RECENT YEARS, as growing numbers of charter school teachers have sought to unionize, both the AFT and the NEA have stepped up their efforts to organize them. Since 2009, the AFT has been flying teacher activists from across the country to meet one another, share stories, and strategize national campaigns. The most recent gathering—they usually last three days—took place in Washington, D.C., in April, and Swanson, Apt, and Baehrend were among the 40 teachers in attendance. “The fights are very similar, so what we see one employer do in Detroit, we wind up seeing in other parts of the country too,” says Shaun Richman, AFT’s deputy director of organizing. “Teachers get the opportunity to support each other, and to learn how to deal with circumstances that may arise at their schools later.”

Also in April, for the first time ever, the California Teachers Association (CTA), an NEA state affiliate, convened 65 charter educators from across the state. One California teacher in attendance was Jen Shilen, who teaches U.S. history, economics, and government at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), a network of 11 virtual charter schools for grades K–12. Shilen and others have been fighting for a CAVA union since December 2013. When their workload began to change rapidly and inexplicably, and their many attempts to raise concerns with management went nowhere, Shilen said, they reached out to CTA. CAVA declined to comment.

“Going to CTA’s conference was the first time I’ve gotten to meet other charter educators organizing and it was a major morale boost,” says Shilen, who rarely even sees her own coworkers, since virtual charter teachers work from home.

Teachers organizing at L.A.’s Alliance schools were also there, as were union members from Green Dot, another rapidly expanding charter chain in Los Angeles. Green Dot schools occupy a unique place in the charter world, since their original founder was interested in establishing a unionized workplace from the outset. In 2006, Green Dot management approached the United Teachers of Los Angeles about their teachers joining their union, but UTLA, then fully opposed to charter schools, rejected the offer. As a result, Green Dot educators unionized with CTA, and their union, the Asociación de Maestros Unidos (AMU), had a relatively unfriendly relationship with UTLA for the next several years.

This too is changing. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the UTLA president elected in April 2014, said that his union is now actively pursuing better relations with AMU. AMU in turn, has come out in strong public support not only for CAVA’s organizing drive (which would be with CTA) but also for Alliance’s. Salina Joiner, AMU’s president, says that her organization’s leadership is all “in support and we’ll do whatever we need to do,” adding that she would never work at a non-union charter school.

Real tensions remain surrounding AFT and NEA’s desire to both organize charter teachers and to politically rein in charter schools. Not all charter teachers who’d be interested in a union would support the Chicago ACTS resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. And not all would agree with teachers like Shilen, who lobbied this year at the State Capitol in Sacramento on behalf of California’s “Annenberg Package”—four bills to promote greater charter transparency and accountability.

Joiner feels that union political activity that attempts to limit charter schools’ funding or expansion is “disrespectful to our educators that teach at that school” and “an injustice to parents that want school choice.” Joiner attended the CTA’s gathering of California charter teachers in April, and said that at least the union is now starting to ask them for their input on charter legislation. To CTA’s credit, she thinks the conversation is “moving in a positive direction from what it was before,” but that charter union members “still have a lot to do around the NEA and AFT.”  

As more charter schools continue to unionize, CTU Vice President Sharkey expects some charter enthusiasts will walk away. “At some point, charter school teachers will work with the same conditions and pay as all the other schools, and at that point it’s not clear that charters will be as exciting to the entrepreneurs and businessmen promoting them now,” he says.

Unionized charters are not a panacea. The UFT Charter School, which opened in Brooklyn in 2005, was a widely publicized K-12 charter experiment to be run by the New York City teachers union. The results of its elementary and middle schools were mostly abysmal, and they closed down in 2015. (The high school performed better and stayed open.) The Wall Street Journal editorial board triumphantly declared that this episode shows the failure of “union dominance” over American public education. However, they conspicuously made no mention of UFT’s other charter school, University Prep, which has been ranked among NYC’s best.

The Wall Street Journal would never write about University Prep because it “disrupts their narrative” about unions, says Randi Weingarten, the president of AFT. “Look, there is not one silver bullet but what unionization does is it gives teachers a choice and a voice.”

Asharg Molla has been working at the Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School ever since she started as a Los Angeles Teach For America corps member in 2009. She likes working for a charter organization, and believes in its mission of creating a small collaborative community where teachers, board members, and parents can all work together. “But that’s just not what it’s been,” she says sadly. While she speaks highly of her school, colleagues, and principals, she joined in with the Alliance cohort organizing for a union because, she says, she recognizes there are limits to what even a good principal can do within a big, fast-growing organization. She knows too many Alliance teachers who are afraid to speak up, lest they rock the boat and lose their job.

The campaign in Los Angeles is gaining steam. Since Molla and her colleagues went public in March, the number of teachers who have pledged support has more than doubled—146 teachers (out of the roughly 600 who work at Alliance schools) have now signed the public petition. But Alliance administrators and their allies are doubling down on their efforts to thwart unionization. Beginning in late May, the California Charter Schools Association started to pay Alliance alumni to call parents at home, in an effort to drum up opposition to a union. 

I don’t want to work for a machine that just cares about the growth and expansion of the organization,” says Molla. “Although [fighting for a union] is not an easy process, and can be exhausting, it really just shows these large organizations that we are the ones who make up this organization and that there needs to be that balance of power.”