Let me put my bias out here first: I became a member of the National Education Association (NEA) before I even became a teacher, and I’m on leave this year to be a full-time Teacher Fellow at the NEA.
I believe that charter schools should not be used as “safety nets” for problems in the current education system but as innovation labs that can feed and build the whole public school system. With those caveats in mind, it will be no surprise that I do believe charter schools should be unionized.
But what might surprise you is why I think they should be unionized. As I did some research—reading and talking with colleagues who have taught in unionized and non-unionized charter schools—there were some frequently stated reasons: teachers and administrators don’t have time to individually negotiate; students with unionized teachers have higher test scores; charters demand too much out of their teachers, causing rapid turnover and a need for unions to help create a fair system.
But I also see that unionizing charter schools could provide another benefit: changing the union itself.
Charter schools should be incubators of innovation for public schools, held accountable to the taxpayers. Why can’t this innovation include unionizing charters to bring innovation to the labor-management relationship?
Bringing the Innovation
Unions have struggled mightily in the last few years; some states have taken drastic hits in membership. While there have been direct attacks on unions by legislators, there is also a serious problem with new teachers choosing not to join the union because they don’t see it matching their values or meeting their needs.
One young teacher shared: “I worried about joining a union because I don’t think that they always protect the right people. There are teachers in front of kids who may not be performing in the best interests of kids, but they stay on the job because of tenure.”
So why can’t charter schools—with more autonomy and less accountability than traditional systems—leverage these advantages and provide a new path for labor and management interaction?
Let’s start with tenure. Unions are often faulted for protecting bad teachers. In my experience the opposite is true. In 2007 I was named Nebraska Teacher of the Year, but a few years before that a principal tried to fire me for the same things I was being lauded for. I’ve known many great teachers who were also threatened because they bucked the status quo.
Teachers need to be able to innovate and push the system, but that won’t happen if teachers think they can be fired on a whim or principal personality conflicts. Charters could provide a new way to think about substantive and procedural due process in employment, putting student wellbeing at the center but also providing a safety net against poor management.
- Employment and advancement decisions for a professional shouldn’t solely be left to management. As teachers we have the responsibility to be the quality-control guardians of our profession. Except for those few places that have Peer Assistance and Review, we have largely ceded that guardian role to management. Charter schools could reimagine that relationship and show us avenues for teachers to be holding colleagues accountable to best practice.
I also see a role for unionized charter schools to redesign professional development and its impact on salary. In most schools today, salaries are determined by years of service and the number of degrees or college credit hours received.
That put me in a Catch 22. I didn’t get my master’s degree until my 17th year of teaching because I couldn’t afford to pay college tuition, and since I couldn’t pay the tuition, my salary increases were minimal. Charter schools could change that paradigm by showing us how to individually assess the professional development needs of educators, find new routes of providing that (such as micro-credentialing) and then recognizing that growth through a new salary design.
Scaling any of these changes from relatively small charter schools systems up to a public school system would be challenging, but innovation often starts small. Learning, reflecting and revising is a much better cycle to be challenged by than simply complaining and maintaining the status quo.
One of the greatest teacher unionists came up with the idea of charter schools as laboratories of innovation that would help fulfill the promises of American public education. Why can’t unionizing those charters also provide us with new ideas for strengthening our profession?
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