Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is a writing fellow at The American Prospect

Recent Articles

Can Teachers Unions Help Online Charter Schools?

Photo: AP/Melanie Stetson Freeman
(Photo: AP/Melanie Stetson Freeman) Students engage in online learning at a charter school in California. I n 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-...

Goodbye Public Housing?

Billed as an effort to save public housing, the new RAD program may ultimately hasten its demise. 

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
AP Photo/Paul Sancya Part of the Brewster-Douglass housing project site is shown in Detroit, Friday, March 18, 2011. I n 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program—a far-reaching effort to preserve the government’s affordable units by transferring them into the private sector. Rather than have Congress directly fund local housing authorities to support the program, RAD allows private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. The contracts, which are set to continually renew every 15-20 years, require developers to keep units affordable for low-income tenants. While Congress initially authorized just 65,000 units to be transferred—roughly five percent of the nation’s 1.2 million public housing stock—it later upped the RAD cap to 185,000 units, under pressure from the Obama administration and a coalition of public housing authorities, real estate...

Judge Issues Restraining Order After an L.A. Charter Network Interfered with Teachers Union Drive

Drama has escalated for teachers organizing at the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, the largest charter network in Los Angeles. Since the teachers, organizing with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), first went public with their union drive in March, they allege the administration has erected illegal barriers to organizing, including intimidating their employees. (Alliance denies these accusations, though some of their leaked internal communications certainly suggest they are opposed to the effort. For example, one memo instructed management to keep their statements focused on “the potentially negative effects of UTLA and any union on fulfilling the school’s mission.”)

Union leaders have filed four unfair labor practice complaints against Alliance, claiming that that administrators have sought to spy on teachers who are organizing, and block UTLA organizers from coming on campus, among other things. Teachers also took issue with Alliance using “funds that could be used for student education to hire high-priced PR consultants, to create an anti-union website.” Towards the end of the 2014-2015 school year, the California Charter Schools Association started to pay Alliance alumni to call parents at home, in order to help galvanize them against the union effort. Part of the script that alumni were asked to read said, “We are asking parents to sign a petition in support of the Alliance as it is today…without UTLA. Will you please sign our petition?”

“Paying alumni to read a script designed to get parents to sign a petition against their own students’ teachers infuriates me,” said Michael Letton, an Alliance teacher, in an UTLA statement.

Alliance’s spokesperson, Catherine Suitor insists that everything the charter network has done in response to the union effort “is to the letter of the law” and says they would not seek to create a coercive or hostile environment.

Two weeks ago, California’s state labor board announced that it would be issuing an injunction, calling for Alliance administrators to quit interfering with the organizing efforts. Then on Friday, in a surprising move, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a restraining order against the Alliance administrators. The order says that Alliance cannot coerce or ask teachers about their positions on unionization, must allow organizers to come onto school grounds, cannot block emails from the union, and must stay 100 feet away from UTLA organizers.

This restraining order will remain in place until November 17, when the judge considers the state labor board’s injunction request. Union organizers will now be allowed to enter into school buildings after school hours.

In March, 70 teachers first announced their intent to join a union, and by June, 146 teachers had signed on in support. Shaun Richman, AFT’s deputy director of organizing, says the current number stands at 124 teachers, after losing some supporters over the summer who no longer work at Alliance. Forming a union will require 50 percent-plus-one of the charter’s roughly 600 teachers to sign on in support.

Earlier this fall, news leaked that the Broad Foundation seeks to enroll at least 50 percent of L.A. public school students in charter schools over the next eight years. Currently, about 16 percent of students in the district attend charters. Such an expansion would undoubtedly threaten the jobs of many unionized teachers in the district.

While the Broad Foundation’s charter expansion plan would require about 5,000 teachers, their documents make no mention of recruiting from teachers already working for L.A. Unified. It does discuss recruiting from Teach for America and other alternative teacher training programs. “While TFA is important, we predict they can provide just 15 percent of our total need,” the report stated. “In order to significantly narrow the teacher recruitment and training gap, we will need other providers like the Relay Graduate School of Education or TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project to come to Los Angeles.” The report estimates that training for new teachers for their charter expansion plan will cost about $43 million over the eight-year period.

According to The Los Angeles Times, the number of teachers in the district has shrunk to about 25,6000 over the last six years, down from about 32,300. The district says that half that decrease is due to the growth of charter schools.