Unions and charters are strange bedfellows

When you ask the leader of an allegedly high performing charter school what makes them so successful, they generally say that they have more flexibility with hiring and firing since they are free from pesky union contracts.  This is why I found it quite odd that I received an announcement with job openings at a charter school called Green Dot High School the other day from the New York City teacher’s union, called the UFT.

It turns out that some charters do have teachers who are in the union.  I’m not sure how many charters are like this in New York City, but in addition to this Green Dot High School, there is actually one called ‘The UFT Charter School’ which, much to the glee of ‘reformers’ is one of the lowest rated schools in the city and nearly had its charter revoked recently, but has been given two years to shape up.

Anytime I see the name ‘UFT Charter School’ I chuckle a little as I imagine a Saturday Night Live skit about what must go on in this school:  The teachers all show up at exactly 7:52 AM and leave at 3:32 PM.  Nobody ever helps students on their ‘duty free’ lunch.  Everyone knows the contract by heart and anytime an administrator tries to get a teacher to do something, that teacher simply quotes the page on the contract that says the teacher does not have to do it.

With the current environment where charters compete with public schools for resources based on questionable definitions of their success, I don’t think the union should be in the charter game at all.  But when I read the job announcement and description of this Green Dot Charter High School, I really got disturbed.

Here is the two page letter:

My problem with this is that it has the usual ‘reformer’ jargon with select ‘Academic Achievments’ like that this school was in the top 10 for New York City progress reports, despite the fact that the union often speaks out against these flawed progress reports when schools are shut down and teachers and students are displaced because of them.  Also you have the infamous high ‘graduation rate’ and ‘college acceptance rate.’  Then, of course, under ‘Preparing students for college,’ one feature is “High expectations for every student.”  This feeds into the common public perception that in ‘other schools’ teachers have low expectations.

Well, I thought I’d take a look at the progress report for this ‘miracle school,’ and see what I could find.  They did, indeed, get an ‘A’ based on their ‘progress’ and also their ‘performance’ as compared to their peer group.  But I found that the statistics at the end of the progress report gave a more complete picture.

Notice that when it comes to ‘rigor’ this school has nobody taking Physics, only 39 students taking Chemistry (with a 62 average on the Regents), and more than half failing the Algebra II / Trigonometry Regents.  When it comes to SAT scores, an average score of less than 400 per section is extremely low.  Out of 360 High Schools that have SAT scores collected, this would put them at 200th.

On the ‘college readiness’ statistic where students need to score above a certain threshold on these state tests, we can see how they did:

So this ‘miracle’ school has a lot of work to do to live up to its reputation and its claims.  They are fortunate that the progress reports are such a sham.  And the union — the big bad union that is always accused of putting the needs of adults ahead of the needs of the kids — they really need to think about why they are touting a false miracle school, just because the teachers are in the union.  Talk about winning the battle but losing the war.


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12 Responses to Unions and charters are strange bedfellows

  1. E. Rat says:

    Green Dot’s union(s) have contracts that differ significantly from the teacher contracts under which I’ve worked. This article (from 2011) outlines the UFT Green Dot contract at that time:


    Part of Green Dot’s narrative in California (they took over control of some LAUSD schools) has been carefully calibrated to highlight their liberalism , specifically that they have unionized teaching staffs. Yet their unions are very weak, their takeovers enjoying at best limited success, and their closest alliances with organizations like Parent Revolution (the “parent trigger:) people. I think it is extremely short-sighted of teachers unions to hold up a Green Dot contract as a good thing.

  2. Jennie says:

    When I was a teacher I was an activist for my teachers’ union; now I work full-time for another labor union. Because of this background, I feel it is my obligation to speak up here. While I usually agree with most of what you write, in this case, I think you’re dead wrong.

    You say that because charter schools are competing with public schools for funding and because they “talk the reformer talk,” unions should just stay away from them. I beg to differ. This is precisely why unions MUST organize their employees…if they do not, it is to their own members’ detriment, not to mention the teaching profession’s (whatever is left of it).

    First off, you’re either ignoring or not realizing a little bit of charter history. While it has been proven a myth that charter schools were “invented” by Al Shanker, unions were among the first to try out the charter school concept, with the idea that they were like little petri dishes where you could test experimental education theories and practices with hard-to-reach student populations, find what works, then bring it back to the larger public school student population. Unions only turned against charters when the corporate “reformers” started picking up on them as a way to privatize public ed and make a profit off it.

    So, that’s #1 (and perhaps can explain a little why there is a UFT charter, and why many unions nationwide consider creating their own charter school).

    But more important is the simple nature of what a charter school is today. Basically, what corporate “reformers” have said is that the public sector is so helplessly inefficient that THEY, the private sector, can come in, teach the same students with better results for less money. That was their selling point, anyway. Gradually they have backed away from the claim of being able to do it for less (at least in Florida) as they lobby the legislature for more and more public funding. They now focus on the claim that they are doing a better job teaching students with the same resources. The for-profit ones claim they can produce better results with less money and still turn a profit. Of course, as with most corporations, this (the profit, not the results, which are usually elusive and/or achieved by cherry-picking) is achieved on the backs of their employees. Charters generally pay less than public schools, especially when it comes to benefits like health insurance and pension.

    This is why it’s a corporate “reformer” (like Jeb Bush) wet dream to see a fully-charterized America where the charters can just compete with each other and don’t have to compete with public schools at all anymore. In that world, the charters no longer have to keep their pay and benefits at least relatively comparable to the public schools in order to recruit and/or retain good teachers; they can just go the Walmart route and race to the bottom, lowering the bar for everyone and seeing how much money they can make by slashing employee pay while still managing to get teachers.

    Unions stymy this race to the bottom. Just as unions raise the wages for everybody in an industry with a union presence by spillover effect, as nonunion companies have to compete with union companies (and try to prevent from getting unionized themselves), teachers’ unions in the public schools keep salaries and benefits decently high (compared to private schools and charters). And charter schools can claim that these unions are the major problem with public schools. But what happens when the teachers in charter schools stand up for their rights, for their professionalism, for their pay and benefits, as they absolutely have every right to do? What happens when charters have to start paying commensurate with union public schools and offering the same benefits packages, and have to have an actual reason to fire a teacher? Now the only difference between the charters and the public schools is getting to cherry-pick their students and not follow some of the rules set for everybody else. I’d say that makes the whole situation a lot clearer and clears the teachers’ unions’ name a bit, too.

    There are very good strategic reasons for teachers’ unions to organize charters. One I already talked about. Another is the same reason the union I currently work for organizes nonprofits: the more you raise the standards in the industry, the better off the workers are (ALL of them) and the less incentive there is for government to outsource its work (since it can no longer save on the backs of the employees). If we fight for our public sector employees but do not actively organize nonprofits (and, in this case, charters), we essentially leave that area to corporations and feed it to become a monster as government outsources more and more of our jobs to them because they “cost less” (by paying their employees less, of course).

    Finally, but perhaps most fundamentally, teachers’ unions should organize charters for the simple reason that EVERY teacher deserves the voice in his or her workplace that being a union member provides. EVERY teacher (like every worker in the country) deserves the right to a collectively bargained contract with his or her priorities taken into consideration during negotiations. EVERY teacher deserves to know that if he or she does a good job, he or she will not be fired from one day to the next for no reason or for bad reasons. NO teacher should be afraid to speak up in his or her students’ best interest for fear of irritating the powers that be and being disciplined or fired. Only by being union do teachers (and other workers) enjoy these rights on the job.

    So for me, though there are strategic reasons why unions should organize charters, it really boils down to workers’ rights. It pains me that someone I respect so much on the subject of public education policy seems to believe that charter school teachers should not have the same rights and union benefits as public school teachers, just because we disagree with the corporate mentality behind charter schools. Indeed, that is all the more reason they should have those protections and benefits.

    I hope you’ll respond to my comment, Gary, as these points were really left out of this post.

    • Steve M says:

      Although I appreciate your concern (and agree with what you’ve said), I don’t think Gary has ever advocated that charter school teachers should not have the same rights/benefits as public school teachers (please correct me if I’m wrong).

      I have a number of questions for you:

      How are unions supposed to make inroads to charter schools? Become a charter teacher, and then agitate from within? Seek out young teachers who have been in a charter school for 5-7 years (and who now appreciate what unions can do for them)?

      Does labor law protect charter teachers who are attempting to unionize, as it does workers in other industries? Or, are charter-teacher contracts filled with clauses that forfeit the teachers’ rights to unionize?

      • Educator says:

        I know that Green Dot in California and Camino Nuevo Charters are unionized. I think they’re under California Teachers Association / NEA, but could be wrong. I know that Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot, has said he believes in a unionized teacher workforce, and that unions aren’t the problem. But I’m not exactly sure how these schools did get unionized. Were they unionized from the start by the founders? Or did the teachers somehow figure it out? I’m curious too. I do know a number of of non-unionized charter teachers who wish they could be unionized. They usually leave teaching and go into education reform.

      • Steve M says:

        The teachers that I knew who taught at Green Dot left after a couple years, disillusioned at its autocratic nature and very mediocre results, even though they practice skimming.

        Camino Nueveo pulls kids from the Belmont Learning Zone (where I taught for many years) and has had no effect other than separating kids from pervasive gang influences. It is essentially a low-functioning private school that is free, and it hires only Latinos. Its teachers are activists, however, and I can see how they would want to be unionized…even though their union leaders probably only parrot the school line.

        The inner-city charters in LAUSD are all segregated by religious, ethnic and nationalistic lines, and that is their sole objective…to segregate kids. None of them have had a marked effect on achievement.

      • Meg says:

        I don’t know enough about LA charter schools to comment on their achievement effects, but I think it’s a pretty unsubstantiated claim to say that the sole objective of all charter schools there is to segregate. How can you back that sentence up?

      • Jennie says:

        There are a lot of different ways teachers can be unionized, and yes, they have the right to unionize just like any other worker in the country. The right to form or join a union is federally guaranteed by the NLRA. So they can’t have a contract that forbids them to unionize…that would be illegal.

        In fact, most teachers in charters don’t have a contract at all, and that is precisely the problem with working in a charter. Everything about your job, from what you have to teach in your classroom to how many hours a day you are expected to work to how much you earn to how and when you get a raise, etc., etc., is completely up to the whims of the administrators of that charter.

        I never worked in a charter myself, but I know several people who have. All of those either went back into public schools as soon as they could or were hoping to. A couple cited the lack of a union as a reason, but most of them referred to the benefits that come with being unionized (e.g., job security, better pay and benefits, pension, rules administrators had to follow as far as working hours and conditions, etc.) without even realizing that the only reason teachers in public schools get those advantages is because they have a union contract.

        I never knew any charter teachers who left charter school teaching to get involved in the ed reform movement, but if the lousy working conditions (that come from not having a union contract) prompted them to leave, and then they got involved full-time in a movement that blames teachers unions for all that ails American society, that is pretty ironic. Hopefully the reforms they are pushing are better ones than turning public schools into charters and doing away with teachers’ unions.

        Now back to the question of how to unionize charters…like I said, it’s just like unionizing anyone else. There are several ways. The easiest is if the teachers in the school come to a union themselves and request help in organizing their school. It could be one individual teacher or a group of teachers. Otherwise, unions can send organizers to talk to teachers, get a feel for their issues, and offer them help in organizing their school if they want it. (I think most charter school teachers would like to have the benefits of being union, even if they don’t realize immediately that it is being in a union that would give them those benefits.) A large enough union could start a CSR campaign (corporate social responsibility) to expose the charter schools and give them a black eye (this is most effective if it is a chain of schools and if they have some really egregious labor practices and/or shady money-making schemes, which all too many do), and to get the union and the CSR campaign off their case, they can strike a deal to allow their teachers to unionize. Finally, they can “salt,” sending a teacher in to work at the school and help agitate and organize her coworkers. I’ve never heard of a teachers’ union doing this at a charter school, but who knows; maybe it has happened.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks for the detailed comment. I do think that it is good when teachers are in the union, including charter school teachers. The thing that irritated me was not that the union has their own charter, but that they were sending out a flyer for openings at a ‘miracle’ school which implies that their teachers have much higher expectations than the teachers in the non-charter schools, which I felt was a dangerous territory for them to be in.

      • Jennifer I. Smith says:

        Thanks Gary. When you put it that way, naturally I agree that no union should be touting a charter school as being a “miracle school” or indeed as being any better than any other traditional public school. That complaint, however, was not what I got out of your post…I took it to mean that teachers’ unions should not get involved in charter schools at all, i.e., should not unionize them. However, given that UFT represents the teachers at that charter school, it does seem fair game for UFT to send the job posting out to its members, in the event that any of them is interested in the position.

        And, to be fair, the job announcement itself comes from Green Dot, not from UFT. So technically it is not UFT calling it a “miracle school,” it is Green Dot calling itself a “miracle school,” which is quite different. That’s tantamount to a district calling its prized magnet school a “miracle school” and touting all its test-based achievements. That would be coming from the employer, not the union. The fact that the union represents the employees there does not mean the union espouses the “vision” of the employer. Indeed, the very point of the union is to counterbalance the employer and give a voice back to the employees.

        And you did say in the post that given the economic situation and the battle for public dollars, the union should not be in the charter business at all. So I feel my point still stands. If unions can help take away the “competitive advantage” of charter schools by making sure they have to pay their employees fairly and play by (most of) the same rules as traditional public schools, it will benefit public schools in the end and could also help clarify the differences between the two entities for the general public.

  3. philaken says:

    For more background into this you must know about the AFT’s relationship with the Broad Foundation. See this article in Substance News for more information:


  4. Cosmic Tinkerer says:

    Gary, I trust you are analyzing the new Mathematic study on KIPP, which is a “Working Paper” and not published in a peer-reviewed education journal, and that you will be writing about it here soon: http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/education/KIPP_middle_schools_wp.pdf

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