Education Week - July 19, 2017 - 13
We show up to new-teacher orientation and we make a case about the value
that we have: We're the people who go to the governor and say, 'Here's what we need.' "
LILY ESKELSEN GARCÍA
President, National Education Association
the toolbox? There's nothing that says [a union
president] can't have a conversation with a school
board president, with the superintendent, and to
lay out our case for why this is the best thing for
Do you worry about loss of revenue
from your 90,000 fee payers? What
about other teachers who might let their
Those are all possibilities, and so it's our
responsibility to make sure that we are prepared
and we're going to [learn from] those states that
never did have agency fees.
I remember when I first ran for the NEA
executive committee and I'm interviewing
with the Michigan folks, and they were like,
"Why would you be looking at this? You don't
understand our world." And I was able to say,
I was the bargaining chair in a nonbargaining
state. That's not for cowards. We just made stuff
up and did it. ... Isn't it ironic that a state like
Michigan is [now] going to a state like Utah and
saying, "How do you do this?"
We show up to new-teacher orientation and we
make a case about the value that we have, we are
the collective voice: We're the people who go up
to the governor and look that person in the eye
and say, "Here's what we need." We're going to
build coalitions with parents, civil rights groups,
disability groups, you name it.
We're going into college campuses, into those
colleges of education; we're not introducing
ourselves when [educators] first show up for work.
Help me understand the type of charter
school that would meet your new criteria.
What would that actually look like?
We don't want to whitewash and say they're
all bad. The folks who say that, it's because it's
all they see in their area. They've never seen
anything else. It's impossible for them to imagine
[a good charter school].
In Alaska [for example], some of the NEA
Alaska members said we want something on
native culture, on Eskimo culture. Half the seats
are filled with native speakers and half with
non-native students. They have a separate
room for the elders who come onto that school
property every day. They do something amazing
with those students. It's music, it's culture, it's
poetry, it's ceremony. Those kids are saying that's
a very meaningful part of my life. And you
can't say that's taking jobs away from the
people doing native culture at [the local]
high school; they're creating something that
I will tell you that is not where the growth is.
It's where we started, and then the charter school
industry moved in. The venture capitalists are not
supporting Fairbanks, Alaska's charter school.
ally meaningfully sit at the table will
create conditions and an environment
where teachers are more comfortable
sticking around and building a longterm career here," he added.
What charter teachers are fighting
for differs from place to place. Sometimes, the contracts end up looking
like those at traditional public schools
and sometimes they are unique to
an individual charter, said Nathan
Barrett, the associate director and senior research fellow at the Education
Research Alliance for New Orleans,
a research organization at Tulane
University that studies post-Katrina
"Oftentimes, teachers just want more
transparency-they want to know
what's going on in a school," he said.
In some cases, the leadership comes
to the table willingly and the organizing process goes smoothly. But often,
the discussions turn acrimonious-
threats are made, lawyers are hired, the
And that can have consequences
whether or not the union comes to
"Once you set up this labor-management adversarial relationship, it can
be very hard to preserve that management-teacher bond that's good for
the school and students," said Andrew
Broy, the head of the Illinois Network
of Charter Schools.
'People Come to Us'
Many agree that interest in charter
organizing has swelled recently, but different camps have different ideas about
who's leading the charge.
According to Ziebarth, "the unions
have been trying to organize charters
for a very long time. ... It's a significant
priority for the AFT, and they've focused
on a handful of urban areas to push on
But Weingarten of the AFT said the
union never pushes organizing, because
a tried-and-failed attempt can potentially put teachers' jobs in jeopardy. "We
don't recruit teachers," she said. "People
come to us."
The AFT represents 234 of the nation's charter schools. The NEA did not
provide numbers but has long represented the majority of unionized charters. (Some charter unions are affiliated
with both organizations.)
Both the national organizations and
local affiliates have people on staff assigned to help organize charter school
teachers. After unsuccessfully trying
to unionize at the charter school where
he taught, Nathan Walker was hired
by AFT Michigan in 2009 to help with
Pushback from charter management
companies has been particularly severe in that state. Last year, the National Labor Relations board accused a
Detroit charter management company
of pulling out of a school to scuttle
staff efforts to unionize, the Detroit
Metro Times, an alternative weekly, reported, only to then re-form as a new
"In general, most folks are very much
interested in participating in an organization at their workplace that is
helping collectively solve problems to
better the learning and working envi-
just want more
want to know what's
going on in a school."
Education Research Alliance
for New Orleans
ronment," Walker said. "When the staff
starts to get divided, my experience is
it's usually the result of the employer
intentionally introducing conflict and
Only a handful of Detroit's charters
are organized. Chicago-a labor organizing stronghold, broadly speaking-has seen quite a few successful
organizing efforts and is, many say, the
epicenter of charter-organizing activity. About a quarter of the 130 charter
schools there are unionized, and teachers at the 18-school Noble charter network-the largest network in the city-
recently announced their intention to
form a union as well.
"More teachers are seeing this as a
realistic option-something they can
do and win," said Chris Baehrend, the
president of the Chicago Alliance of
Charter Teachers and Staff, which represents teachers at the unionized charters and is an AFT affiliate.
Chicago ACTS members recently
voted to merge with the 32,000-member Chicago Teachers Union. The
CTU is expected to approve that
measure this fall, which would mean
charter teachers will make up 4 percent of the larger AFT affiliate's
But Broy, of the Illinois Network of
Charter Schools, argued that this is a
political play to undermine charters.
"There are an increasing number of
schools caught up in labor negotiations
that are taking a lot of time and energy
away from classrooms and what we're
trying to do," he said.
Charter school teachers are paid
less on average than their district
counterparts nationally (though they
are also on average less experienced).
And yet the CTU has consistently
opposed giving charter schools equitable funds, said Broy. "It's evidence
they're playing both sides in this case,"
Teachers' unions have good reason
to want to add more members these
days. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering hearing the Janus v. AFSCME
case, out of Illinois, which could potentially make it illegal for the unions to
charge fees to nonmembers. That could
lead to a drop in both revenue and
But experts say organizing charter
schools is not really a viable tactic for
boosting numbers. It's also expensive,
since contracts need to be negotiated
separately at each charter school.
"Candidly, numerically, it doesn't add
up to a membership growth strategy,"
And organizing efforts can easily
crumble at individual schools because
of higher teacher turnover and fear of
retaliation. "If you're a teacher working
in these schools, you have to think, is
it worth the effort for me to organize if
I know I'm only going be here another
two to three years?" said Barrett.
Coverage of policy efforts to improve
the teaching profession is supported by
a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at
Education Week retains sole editorial
control over the content of this coverage.
Visit the TEACHER BEAT blog, which tracks
news and trends on this issue.
EDUCATION WEEK | July 19, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 13