Currently, about 12 percent of this country’s 6,700 public charter schools are unionized. Nationally, unions are making a big push to unionize more charter schools—even while they invest heavily in opposing them.
Generally, education reformers have been less than enthusiastic about the unionization of teachers, but there are supporters. Dirk Tillotson, an education blogger in Oakland who has worked in unionized and non-unionized public charter schools, recently suggested that unionized charters could be good for kids because a union helps “professionalize” teachers and improve school learning environments.
What stands out most about the debate around unionizing charter schools, however, is how shockingly little we know about what it even means. Little research or analysis exists about what is in charter school collective bargaining agreements. In fact, the contracts themselves are hard to find.
None of the major organizations on either side of the issue—national unions, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, state charter school associations—collect and share contracts publicly.
While education reporters frequently cover schools negotiating their agreements, the stories rarely link back to the actual contract. It’s not even clear whether reporters have actually read these contracts in writing their stories.
Earlier this year, a colleague and I looked at 16 charter school teacher contracts across six states. We examined over a dozen policy provisions in the contracts, including tenure, evaluations, compensation, professional development, planning and collaboration time, length of the school day, class size, and strikes and lockouts.
The Skinny on the Contracts
- Charter school collective bargaining agreements often look a lot like traditional district contracts.
While several of the contracts did not include tenure clauses, a surprising number of schools awarded tenure after only two years in the classroom. Seniority usually determined the layoff order, and discipline is guided by a progressive framework of steadily increasing consequences. Perhaps most surprising, compensation often resembles the traditional district structure, where base salary is usually determined by step and lane, based on experience and education. Performance, if factored, influences bonuses, but not base salaries.
- Innovation is lacking, but it does exist.
From new salary structures for teachers to a point system for determining layoff priorities, a handful of schools stepped outside of the bounds of the traditional district framework. The potential for more participatory leadership is arguably the greatest opportunity for innovation in collective bargaining agreements. Thoughtful school leadership structures that give teachers meaningful decision-making roles are good for both teachers and principals, and charter schools seem to recognize this—only two of the contracts we examined did not mention it.
- Teacher learning and planning are prominent issues.
Most contracts contained language regarding professional development, typically providing teachers a key role in selecting and designing programs (and a couple of schools turned the responsibility for professional development over to teachers entirely). Nearly every contract we examined had dedicated planning time as well. Unfortunately, most focused solely on providing time for individual teachers—only a handful allotted specific time for common planning and team collaboration.
- Strikes are a no-go.
When contracts are negotiated at the school level, they usually prohibit strikes and lockouts. Perhaps this reflects the kind of collective bargaining that can happen at the school level, one in which the focus is more on ensuring effective, constructive communication between educators and management.
What Do We Do About Collective Bargaining?
So where do we end up on the issue of unionized charter schools?
First, it’s important to recognize that teachers choose charter schools, too. Empowering charter school teachers with the ability to make policy decisions to determine what works for their individual school has enormous potential. And given that charter school teachers are negotiating with their own school’s administration, collective bargaining agreements can be a vehicle for more authentic teacher voice.
While we may have concerns about the adversarial nature of collective bargaining often seen in traditional districts, if a bargaining relationship is something both teachers and management want, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to preclude it outright.
Second, in many ways, the opportunities for collective bargaining in charter schools are tremendous, but only if schools and leaders take advantage of them. Collective bargaining agreements can be used as tools to advance many elements of a school’s “secret sauce” or they can end up as contracts that look very much like district bargaining agreements, which are not known for respecting autonomy.
Where schools under such a regime do succeed, it will likely be because the educators in the building figure out how to achieve in spite of the contract, rather than because of the support it provides. And charter schools would also be wise to keep their contracts thin, allowing for the customization and flexibility charters are known for while avoiding the overly burdensome web of rules traditional districts are often stifled by.
- Finally, having so little information about charter school collective bargaining agreements is a missed opportunity. School leaders and teachers should have models for successful, innovative practices readily available. Charter authorizers, researchers and proponents should be studying contract elements to figure out how they impact teaching and learning.
But the benefits of knowing more extend well beyond the charter sector. It would behoove every superintendent about to head to the negotiation table to know what teachers want and what’s possible, where their interests can be aligned with the needs of their students and communities.