Within the last few weeks, efforts to unionize charter schools have seen two major new developments: the first-ever organizing drive in Washington, D.C. charter schools, and the public launch of a union drive in Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools, whose donors include Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, a staunch union opponent.
“We want a voice in decisions,” more than 100 of Noble’s teachers and staff declared March 3 in an open letter to the charter network’s leadership, including CEO Michael Milkie. Teachers at D.C.’s Paul Public Charter school say the same, pointing to a school improvement committee that went nowhere and the June 2016 firing of the school’s popular principal.
Will going union get teachers what they want? It can, and some choice proponents, like Oakland education blogger Dirk Tillotson, have offered examples of great working environments created by unions and leadership working together.
Chicago, as a major city where unionized charters have an unusual combination of long history and deep reach, offers a unique laboratory to explore the issue. In 2013, teachers launched organizing drives in two Chicago charter school networks: Urban Prep and North Lawndale College Prep. While Urban Prep adopted the more common strategy of trying to fight a union drive, North Lawndale leaned in closer to its teachers and listened to their concerns.
At Urban Prep, a contentious run-up to the secret ballot vote that created the union was followed by charges that the administration engaged in the retaliatory firing of 17 teachers. Last January, the National Labor Relations Board approved a settlement between Urban Prep and Chicago ACTS (Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff) that forced the charter network to offer to rehire all teachers fired at the time and pay about $250,000 in severance and back pay. (Only two teachers chose to return.)
Asked whether teachers and students have seen a change for the better since the school unionized, Shoneice Reynolds, parent of a June 2016 graduate and a supporter of the union campaign, says not yet. “Teachers still feel they do not have a voice.”
By contrast, at North Lawndale, the organizing drive lost steam and teachers never took a union vote, apparently because administration and teachers have so far found other ways to address the issues. Chris Baehrend, acting president of Chicago ACTS, declined to comment.
No Happy Dance, Just Lots of Listening to Teachers
“I don’t want to do a happy dance,” says John Horan, North Lawndale’s president. He notes that it’s much easier to listen deeply with teachers in a two-campus network like his than in a larger charter management organization. He’s also keenly aware that Illinois and Chicago’s dire finances are hurting his teachers’ pay, and they could relaunch a union drive any second. “There’s no guarantees as to what tomorrow could bring.”
But when teachers announced the 2013 drive, Horan and other North Lawndale leaders not only listened, they took action. “We’re working now on a transparent salary schedule,” he says. A school culture team was created to talk through other issues. Efforts to increase teacher mentoring have stumbled due to budget and staff cuts, Horan acknowledges.
Even under tough fiscal constraints, management’s attitude can make a difference. In Washington, the DC Public Charter School Board executive director has already expressed openness to unionized charters along the lines of Green Dot schools.
North Lawndale’s Horan says the key is to open one’s ears to teachers. “You listen to people and try to respond as best you can,” he says. “It was easy to listen to people you cared for because you saw them every day with the kids, before school and after school. There was a lot of respect.”