As Charter Schools Unionize, Many Debate Effect
By SAM DILLON
CHICAGO — Dissatisfied with long hours, churning turnover and, in some cases, lower pay than instructors at other public schools, an increasing number of teachers at charter schools <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/c/charter_schools/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> are unionizing.
Labor organizing that began two years ago at seven charter schools in Florida has proliferated over the last year to at least a dozen more charters from Massachusetts and New York to California and Oregon.
Charter schools, which are publicly financed but managed by groups separate from school districts, have been a mainstay of the education reform movement and widely embraced by parents. Because most of the nation’s 4,600 charter schools operate without unions, they have been freer to innovate, their advocates say, allowing them to lengthen the class day, dismiss underperforming teachers at will, and experiment with merit pay and other changes that are often banned by work rules governing traditional public schools.
“Charter schools have been too successful for the unions to ignore,” said Elizabeth D. Purvis, executive director of the Chicago International Charter School, where teachers voted last month to unionize 3 of its 12 campuses.
But the unionization effort raises questions about whether unions will strengthen the charter movement by stabilizing its young, often transient teaching force, or weaken it by preventing administrators from firing ineffective teachers and imposing changes they say help raise achievement, like an extended school year.
“A charter school is a more fragile host than a school district,” said Paul T. Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington
Unions are not entirely new to charter schools. Teachers at hundreds of charter schools in Wisconsin, California and elsewhere have long been union members, not because they signed up, but because of local laws, like those that extend union status to all schools in a state or district.
Steve Barr, the founder of one large charter network, Green Dot, said his group operates its 17 charter schools in Los Angeles and one in the Bronx with union staff because it makes sense in the heavily unionized environment of public education.
In recent months, teachers have won union recognition at schools including the Boston Conservatory Lab School, a school in Brooklyn that is part of the Knowledge Is Power Program
“I was frustrated with all the turnover among staff, with the lack of teacher input, with working longer and harder than teachers at other schools and earning less,” said Jennifer Gilley, a social studies teacher at the Ralph Ellison
The potential for further unionization of charter schools is a matter of debate.
“They’ll have a success here and there,” said Todd Ziebarth, a vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “But unionized charters will continue to be a small part of the movement.”
Randi Weingarten <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/w/randi_weingarten/index.html?inline=nyt-per> , president of the American Federation of Teachers <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/a/american_federation_of_teachers/index.html?inline=nyt-org> , called the gains of the past year “a precursor.”
“You’re going to see far more union representation in charter schools,” Ms. Weingarten said. “We had a group of schools that were basically unorganized, groups of teachers wanting a voice, a union willing to start organizing them, and now money in our organizing budget to back that up. And all of that has come together in the last 6 to 12 months.”
She quoted Albert Shanker <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/albert_shanker/index.html?inline=nyt-per> , her union’s founder, as saying charter schools should be “incubators of good instructional practice.”
“I’m adding to the argument,” Ms. Weingarten said. “Let them be incubators of good labor practice.”
The largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has no national charter organizing campaign. But some of its state affiliates have helped charters unionize.
Some recently unionized charters say they are feeling their way forward.
The Knowledge Is Power Program, known as KIPP, which operates 82 mostly high-performing charter schools nationwide, is facing first-time negotiations with teachers at its KIPP Amp Academy in Brooklyn, where teachers this spring won affiliation with the United Federation of Teachers <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/u/united_federation_of_teachers/index.html?inline=nyt-org> .
KIPP is also facing demands for higher pay at its high-performing Ujima Village Academy in Baltimore, which has been unionized under Maryland law since its founding.
“Our schools had largely been left alone,” said Steve Mancini, a KIPP spokesman. “Now we’re getting all this union attention.” One goal KIPP will seek in negotiations in New York and Baltimore, Mr. Mancini said, is to preserve the principals’ right to mold their teams.
Whether KIPP can maintain that posture in its negotiations remains to be seen. Another question is whether the strains of unionization will affect the culture of collegiality that has helped charter schools prosper.
Here in Chicago, where students at several Chicago International campuses have scores among the city’s highest for nonselective schools, teachers began organizing last fall after an administrator increased workloads to six classes a day from five, said Emily Mueller, a Spanish teacher at Northtown Academy.
“We were really proud of the scores, and still are,” Ms. Mueller said. “But the workload, teaching 160 kids a day, it wasn’t sustainable. You can’t put out the kind of energy we were putting out for our kids year after year.”
Some teachers disagreed. Theresa Furr, a second-grade teacher at the Wrightwood campus, said she opposed unionization.
“Every meeting I went to,” Ms. Furr said, “it was always ‘What can we get?’ and never ‘How is this going to make our students’ education better?’ ”
For Joyce Pae, an English teacher at Ralph Ellison, the decision was agonizing. Her concerns over what she saw as chaotic turnover and inconsistency in allocating merit pay led her to join the drive. But after school leaders began paying more attention to teachers’ views, she said, she voted against unionization in June.
Union teachers won the vote, 73-49.
“If nothing else,” Ms. Pae said, “this experience has really helped teachers feel empowered.”