I read the new CRPE report, “An Unlikely Bargain: Why Charter School Teachers Unionize and What Happens When They Do” fresh off 10 months of negotiations with the union that has represented schools in my charter network since 2009. I won’t lie—our recent negotiations were bruising and included a strike. I’m still pretty sore about how things went down. I learned the hard way about tensions in the teaching ranks, how media can distort relationships and how much faith—sometimes misplaced faith—teachers put into creating a detailed contract to govern relationships when more informal lines of communication could actually be more effective.
Nonetheless, I retain my optimism that we can work together. The CRPE report rightly emphasizes that there are ways for charter management and charter teacher unions to work together that respect both charters’ unique missions and the teacher work forces that bring them to life.
The report also highlights some key ways schools can strengthen trust between teachers and administrators, such as offering teachers voice and input into school-level decisions, being transparent about budgets and including teachers in budget discussions and keeping your whole school community connected to your mission and purpose.
Charter Leaders Can Build Trust By Offering Transparency
Many districts and charter networks struggle to build trust between teachers and administrators. No wonder CRPE researchers heard frequently that this lack of trust had been a factor pushing charter teachers to form unions. Trust among adults in schools is the key lever that moves most outcomes for student learning.
Charter leaders can build that trust by creating transparent processes for decision-making. As the report notes, “Teachers crave avenues to air frustrations and weigh in on decisions.”
In our new contract, teachers pushed to define committees with specific contract language. While we don’t yet know what actions, if any, teachers will take to launch these committees, it was clearly important to them to have specific language defining them spelled out in their contract. Our new contract creates professional solutions committees in each school and at the network level to capture teacher voice and solve problems collectively.
My advice: Charter leaders can leverage teacher voice by strategically creating committees to support specific initiatives supporting student growth and school success. Provide space and support for them to collaborate and connect their work to specific outcomes related to students and families.
Compensation Covers Much More Than Pay
Before talking specifically about compensation, it’s important to note that how charters are funded became an issue in the recent contract I helped negotiate.
Teachers felt that the funds our schools receive pass through too many hands before coming to them, and these passes made their portion too small. They wanted a salary schedule structured like that of traditional public schools, with guaranteed raises and transparency about who earns what, and on what basis. But moving toward a traditional public school teacher salary schedule is costly. While large districts seem to afford it, much smaller charter networks cannot.
Compensation is about more than pay. It also involves quality of life and working conditions. Teachers wanted more specific language and parameters around class size, employee dismissal and duties. While the contract we negotiated did increase pay, it also included an article regarding teacher evaluation.
We wanted an evaluation process that was comprehensive and held teachers accountable for performance. Teachers wanted a system that was predictable and held administrators accountable for standards of practice. Though it was time-consuming, working through this portion of the contract was relatively easy.
My advice: Put the budget conversation on the table. Offer sessions on school budget and finance for those interested. Share the calculations and the overall revenue structure. Walk through expenditures and what the categories cover in detail. Show them some invoices for utilities and curriculum so that they can get an understanding of how much it costs to operate their school and the network as a whole.
Explain and share the value-add and work-streams of those in the central office in detail, so that they can better understand what services your office provides. Offer Lunch-and-Learns quarterly to review employee perks and benefits and use this as an opportunity to get feedback about how to improve the work experience in ways outside of pay.
Stay Focused on Your Mission
We all know that school as it currently exists does not serve students well. While we may see a rise in graduation rates and an increase in college enrollment, there are metrics that we aren’t measuring like flexibility, adaptability, identity affirmation, effective communication and so many other skills needed for our students’ survival in the burgeoning artificial intelligence age.
We need schools to look, sound and feel different for students, families and teachers. This is why charters exist, to disrupt the status quo and to intentionally innovate on behalf of our students. Unfortunately, contracts in charter schools have the potential to create barriers that make it harder to do the things that change students’ lives. To reduce those barriers, it’s essential to keep everyone involved focused on their common mission.
My advice: More than anything, I see the mission and purpose of the charter movement becoming muddled. Unions are exploiting this opening, finding dissension and using it to disrupt our work. Take time to re-connect your school community with your mission and purpose. Listen to your stakeholders and take a pulse to learn how people see themselves fitting into the mission and purpose.
Conduct some empathy interviews to ensure you are designing with your teachers, students and families, not for them. Remind your teachers and staff what makes your school community special. Encourage them to do the same empathy interviews with students so they can ground themselves in why they are here. Recruit with your mission and purpose front and center.
Your people must embody your school’s mission and purpose when you bring them on the team. That mission and purpose permeate through every meeting, professional learning, student town hall and family conversation. When your mission is intact, I believe people will do whatever it takes to protect it.