Why Can't Charter Schools and Teachers' Unions Be Friends?

The president of California's largest teachers' labor group weighs in on the recent unionization of charters across the state—a shift that runs counter to the history of tension between charters and labor groups.
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A teacher prepares for class inside her science classroom at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

A teacher prepares for class inside her science classroom at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Welcome to State of the Unions Week, where we look at the past, present, and future of organized labor in America.

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Teachers' unions and charter schools often find themselves in direct opposition. Since the first public charter opened in 1992, charter school enrollment has exploded—but their union involvement has stayed low, and they have repeatedly gone head-to-head with unions in local elections. "These two parties," noted a report on a 2006 symposium on the future of charters and teachers' unions, "often behave like cats and dogs toward one another."

That tension was further codified last year, when the National Education Association—the umbrella organization for teachers' unions that also happens to be the largest labor union in the United States—released a policy statement rejecting "unaccountable privately managed charters" as "a failed and damaging experiment." Hostilities have swelled in Washington, D.C., as well, where national union groups tried in February to give failing report cards to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime supporter of privately managed charters.

Meanwhile, charter schools that bridge the gap with labor organizations are treated as anomalies. One local radio station in Boston described the recent decision of two local charters to unionize as "crossing a fault line." Those fault lines seem to run deep.

Yet more schools are beginning to cross them. Charters—which are publicly funded and attended, but can be managed by private companies with minimal oversight—continue to unionize in major cities including Washington, D.C, New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Sacramento. The overall percentage of unionized charters nationwide has dipped slightly since 2010. But in that time, the percentage of unionized schools that belong to charter management organizations, rather than operating solo, has doubled, indicating that big charter players are increasingly coming around to organizing.

That trend has held true in California, which as of the 2016–17 school year had far and away the most charter schools and most students served by them of any state. Looking at California's charter enrollment between 2003 and 2013, an Economics of Education Review paper published last year found that significantly more charters were unionized in the state than previous studies had estimated—about one in four (prior estimates were around 12 percent). Some schools have been unionized from their first day of operation, like those in the Green Dot Public Schools group founded in Los Angeles, while others, like a Sacramento charter chain chaired last year by former D.C. Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee, fought for union representation long after their founding.

Teachers at both the Green Dot and Sacramento schools have worked with the California Teachers Association, the largest teachers' union in the state. CTA President Eric Heins—who teaches in the Bay Area—spoke to Pacific Standard about collaborations between charters and unions, the rising momentum for teachers' unions since the West Virginia walkouts, and what it would really mean for public school systems to make charters "irrelevant."

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Why do you think more charter school teachers have been coming around to unionizing in recent years?

You have to remember that the reason traditional public schools organized, in the 1970s and after, was because of the way that teachers and students were being treated. We're seeing the same cycle happen in unorganized charters.

There are two reasons that schools unionize now. One is that teachers are being mistreated, with things like arbitrary firings. In the past it could be because you didn't agree with the principal or something like that—whatever. Very little of it had to do with education—some of it didn't have to do with education at all. The other reason is because teachers want to be able to advocate for their students, and to do so without fear of reprisal.

What kind of initiatives are teachers advocating for?

I'll tell you my own story, the reason I got active in the union. I teach elementary school. What I was being asked to do in my classroom, under No Child Left Behind, being given scripted curriculums, teaching guides that made sure every teacher was on the same page at the same moment on the same day at the same hour—I knew that the things I was being asked to do were simply bad teaching. And I knew that if you went to a rich, white, suburban school, or any private school, you wouldn't be seeing the kind of teaching I was being asked to do. You'd be seeing enriched curriculums with music and the arts and all these other things. Where I was being asked to focus, with a script, on math and language arts, mainly, to the expense of music, arts, and even science at the time.

That kind of top-down, one-size-fits-all instruction doesn't match the way children learn, and we know better. So I had to stand up and speak out against that. And that's why I got involved in the union. Because I could do that without fear of being fired, or making my principal mad.

Eric Heins.

Eric Heins.

How did joining the union protect you?

It gave me a clear structure for how to speak out. Because I knew that if I was doing my job, they would give me avenues for using my voice. I also knew there were other teachers, not just in my school and district but around the state, who I'd meet at conferences and who agreed with me. We'd learn from each other, train and support each other. I knew that when I stood up and spoke, with a union voice, it wasn't just me alone speaking, easy to ignore, but a collective voice, which is much more difficult to ignore.

I also knew the way to say things, how not to be insubordinate. I knew if I was being treated unfairly, what the remedy was, through the grievance process. I knew what my rights were under the education code and contract code, because I educated myself about these things, and my union educated me.

This environment that you described under No Child Left Behind, how much has that since changed, in your experience?

Well, we eventually saw the law changed. It is now the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives more control to the state. In California that means we are able to make some very innovative educational changes. We've been able to lessen, although not eliminate, the toxic testing and everything that was coming with it.

You're mentioning some of these state-specific initiatives, and that makes me think of one of the criticisms lobbied at charters. Are some charter-led curriculum initiatives in effect experimenting on students and introducing approaches that you're not sure will actually work?

Actually, the irony of it is, charters are a union concept, originally. It was about creating laboratories of innovation, [from which] the [findings] could be taken and spread out throughout other schools. But what the charter industry has done—we're talking about charter management organizations that have taken and co-opted the idea and used it as a vehicle to semi-privatize the public school industry. So basically, they began these charters and there's a report for the public interest on the abuses that are going on. They are spending public money in a very opaque way, without any disclosure of how that money is being spent, any accountability for the charters. In California there's the proliferation of unaccountable and unregulated charters. So it's not surprising we're seeing these abuses and all these other things going on that we only really find out when the Federal Bureau of Investigation raids their headquarters [as happened with the Celerity group in Los Angeles]. We're still working to bring some regulation into the charter industry here in California.

The funny thing is, [regarding curriculum experimentation], the teaching that you're seeing in some of these charters is even more traditional "drill and kill" than what we're seeing in our more traditional, regular public schools.

Why do you think that is?

Because they're being run by these corporations. And it's not really at the interest of students and their learning. So what we're seeing in California, with the local control funding formula and the way we're doing education now, is relying on student achievement. Because this system relies on local control and local accountability, but also innovation in those areas. We're seeing some very exciting stuff happen in the state. Now, clearly, not everywhere; there are [more than 1,000] school districts, so you do see them all over the place. But overall you're seeing some very innovative stuff. Student learning, that's really at the center of everything. And it has been under attack, in several ways.

How has student learning been under attack?

When you're negotiating salary, benefits, the terms of hiring, it's really about getting people to stay in the profession. You can't be a teacher if you can't feed your family, no matter how altruistic you may be.

[What happened in West Virginia is] exciting. Their teachers have stood up for what they believe is right. Even their economic demands impact student learning. If West Virginia wants to have a good public school system, and to attract the best and brightest, you have to pay people enough to be able to teach and live there. It's just for pure economic reasons, right? Or else people will leave the state.

There's an old saying, a teacher's teaching conditions are a student's learning conditions. And that's because you can't really separate the two.

Do you think, on the whole, charters are more likely to be bad for teachers and students?

I think charters that are unregulated and opaque are not just bad for teachers, but bad for students. They're bad from a public policy perspective. They spend taxpayer money with very little accountability—very little to say about how they do it, and what they're spending it on. We're going to see some very shocking things when the light finally shines upon how some of these charter management organizations are running their shows.

Members of the California Teachers Association gather in Los Angeles for the Women's March.

Members of the California Teachers Association gather in Los Angeles for the Women's March.

Do non-unionized charters stand as good of a chance at proliferating, compared to charters that have organized?

Non-unionized charters are proliferating. But I can hope those days are numbered. And that we can bring transparency and accountability to the industry that we don't see now, and hopefully that will shake out a lot of the abuses. We will continue to support and fund our traditional public schools, and that's where we'll build community schools. And we're building our changes around local control funding in California. Hopefully charters will, in effect, become irrelevant, because all of our public schools will be furthering innovation.

So if you're saying that the ultimate view of the union is wanting to implement changes to eventually make charter schools irrelevant, could you understand why charter teachers might feel like they're being opposed by unions, in some way?

If teachers are working at any school that's a bad school, we need to fix it. If a teacher likes working at a bad school, that's hard to say—but we need to do whatever we need to do to fix it.

But you really need to dig a little deeper. What are the values that actually led you to that [wanting to work at charters]? That'd be the discussion I'd have with this teacher. What is it about charters—is it the innovation, the freedom of the work that you do? Suppose you have those factors in traditional schools. Does it really matter to you, if you're really focused on the students? There's a reason behind what she's saying that's more than just [this divide of] charter versus traditional.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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