Teachers Unions Target Charter Schools in California

By Larry Sand / September 30, 2014 / Union Watch

The latest chapter in “kill or unionize” sees the unions in organize mode.

As I’ve written before, the teachers unions have a constantly shifting relationship with charter schools. When Mercury is in retrograde, the unions want to limit their growth or legislate the publicly-funded schools of choice out of existence. At other times, organizing them is the preferred strategy. With the coronation of new National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcìa, we see the unions take a conciliatory tone in an attempt to lure charter school teachers into the fold.

In fact, Garcia held a press conference at a unionized charter school in northern California in August. This fits right in with the California Teachers Association’s long-term strategic plan, which includes organizing charters as one of its foci. The only problem with NEA/CTA’s plan is that all their previous organizing attempts have fallen flatter than a flounder. As Mike Antonucci wrote earlier this month, “So go ahead and read about the push to unionize charters from last week, or from last April, or from May 2013, or from April 2013, or from April 2011, or from May 2006, or from November 2000.”

Why have the unions’ attempts to organize charter schools failed?

For starters, charters are either independent efforts or run by charter management organizations which operate a handful of schools. The unions just don’t have the wherewithal to organize one or even a few schools at a time. They have a much easier job in traditional public education where they can exert their influence on entire school districts.

Another reason that more charters aren’t organized is very simply that their teachers don’t want to be in a union. Teachers – frequently young ones – typically flock to charters because they like the autonomy that charters afford and don’t want to be loaded with an endless pile of restrictive work rules that are part and parcel of the typical collective bargaining agreement – a big reason why the de-bureaucratized and de-unionized schools came into being in the first place.

Charter school popularity is perpetually on the rise. Nationally, the number of students enrolled in them reached 2.5 million in 2013-2014, up 12.6 percent from the year before, according to the most recent enrollment estimates from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Ten years ago, charter enrollment was 789,000 – less than a third of what it is now. As of last year, California alone had 1,130 charters, about 6 percent more than the year before. There was a 10.3 percent rise in charter student enrollment during that time, bringing the state total to 519,000.

The bad news is that there are still not enough. The California Charter School Association informs us that there are 91,000 students on waitlists. Supply just can’t keep up with demand.

At the same time, however, the unions are losing ground with charters. The Center for Education Reform reports that nationwide, the percentage of unionized charter schools has dropped from 12 in 2009 to a paltry 7 in 2012. In CA, there is a 15 percent unionization rate, but that number, from the 2009-2010 school year, is due for an update.

The low unionization rate is good news for students, who are better off when their charter school teachers aren’t organized. Evaluating Boston’s charter schools in 2009, Harvard economist Thomas Kane discovered that “students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit.” In other words, a unionized charter is no different than a unionized traditional public school. Unions may support charters, but unionized charters are stripped of just about everything that makes them different from – and generally better than – traditional public schools.

By the way, Mercury will be in retrograde in a few days, so plan on the unions reverting to kill mode. They’ll sponsor legislation that will, at best, try to limit charter expansion or, at worst, kill them off entirely. You can bet your astrology chart on it.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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