When you think of charter schools, there are probably a few people and concepts that come to mind: Michelle Rhee, “grit,” Bill Gates, Eva Moskowitz, KIPP, etc. And if you happen to think of teachers unions at some point during this education policy reverie, you’ll probably have them in the role they’re traditionally assigned by the media — as anti-charter and anti-reform. Just like Israelis and Palestinians, Crips and Bloods, Yankees and Red Sox, teachers unions and the charter movement simply don’t like each other. That’s just the way it is.
But according to a recent piece in the American Prospect by Rachel M. Cohen, the truth of how charters and unions relate to one another is more complicated. It turns out that there are some charter school teachers out there who’ve started to think a union isn’t such a bad idea after all; and their ranks are growing. Whether it’s in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago or New York, Cohen shows, the future of education policy is very much in flux. In fact, the day when the financial backers of charters have to decide which they care about more — breaking unions or educating kids — may arrive sooner than you think.
Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Cohen to discuss her piece, the motivations of charter teachers who are seeking to unionize, and why their success may actually bring charters closer to their historical roots and original mission. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
How widespread are the efforts to unionize among charter teachers?
It’s definitely not the majority. They say 7 percent of all charter school teachers are currently unionized, and half of those were because the state set that up when they created the charter law. For example, in Baltimore, which I didn’t talk about in my piece, all charter school teachers are unionized, but not because they came together and started a union draft like they’re doing in Philadelphia or Chicago, where the state said you have to follow your district’s collective bargaining unit.
By no measure is it the majority, but what’s interesting now is that there are fairly larger networks of charter schools starting to do it, and if alliance charter school teachers succeed in L.A. (which is the largest charter school network), then that would impact what other smaller schools do.
What tend to be the pro-union teachers’ complaints?
Most charter school teachers work on year-to-year contracts, which does not provide great stability, especially if you’re trying to create a family.
One of the things that I saw was that charter school teachers tended to be younger, and some of the teachers that I spoke with who were in their early 30s were like, “I want to stay at this school, but if I want to get married and have kids there’s no way that I can not know if I have a job in September once May rolls around. I need to either work in a district school or unionize this school, because this whole tenuous working model is not sustainable for the kind of middle-class life I’m trying to build.” So that’s something all workers are trying to figure out how to get for themselves.
There’s definitely also charter school teachers who want to form unions because they think that that’s how they’re going to best serve their kids. Charter school proponents on the political level will say, “We value the voices of teachers; we like having small schools where everybody can get a say.” But, in reality, a lot of teachers don’t feel like they have the voice that their administrators claim they have. Especially in some of the charter school chains that are very rapidly expanding, teachers said to me that all the decisions were coming from bureaucratic offices far away from the classroom, and that they don’t really have a say and are scared to say anything because their positions are already fairly precarious.