Teachers unions increasingly are trying to unionize charter schools nationwide, an effort school choice advocates say will stymie the mission and success the nontraditional schools have delivered to struggling school systems.
Organizers of charter schools, which receive public funding but operate independently of a jurisdiction’s primary public school system, often discourage unionization. They say independence from unions allows their schools to be more flexible with assignments, hours and teacher pay, among other things.
“Charters are about flexibility from one-size-fits-all state policies, district policies and collective bargaining agreements. They are about the flexibility to innovate,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
“All that cuts directly against union collective bargaining agreements,” he said.
The American Federation of Teachers represents educators in 231 charter schools in 15 states. That is a little more than 3 percent of the 6,633 charter schools counted across the country in 2015, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Overall, 10 percent to 12 percent of the nation’s charter schools are unionized in some form. Most of those schools are in states such as Maryland that require charter school teachers to be part of the same unions in which public school teachers participate.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said charter school teachers organize because they “want a real partnership with their administration in the decisions that shape the lives of their kids, their school and themselves.”
National public school unions such as the National Education Association and the AFT have long been pushing for charter school educators to unionize. Nationally, the NEA represents about 3 million teachers and the AFT has more than 1.5 million members.
Mr. Ziebarth, of the NAPCS, said he thinks the NEA has reduced its efforts to recruit schools for unionization but the AFT has doubled down, especially in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and the District of Columbia.
The NEA did not respond to questions about charter school unionization.
Advocates for traditional public schools and those for charters have long displayed a contentious relationship. Public school proponents have argued that charters lack proper oversight and consume government resources that should be used for traditional schools.
Reports on the effectiveness of charter schools vary, but a research group at Stanford University has been tracking student performance in standardized tests over the past decade.
Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes reported in 2013 that 25 percent of charter school students performed better in reading and about 30 percent showed improvements in math compared with public school students.
Not all of schools that the center studied in 26 states and the District of Columbia showed significant gains. About 56 percent of the charter schools did no better than public schools in reading and about 40 percent didn’t outperform public schools in math, the Stanford study shows. In fact, about 19 percent of charters did worse than public schools in reading and 31 percent did worse in math.
A second Stanford study in 2015 focused on urban school districts and showed charter schools made significant gains. Researchers found that in 41 cities across the country, charter school students learned about 40 more days worth of math and 28 more days worth of reading than in public schools in the same cities.
Charter advocates say independence allows schools to be tailored to students’ needs rather than fit the students into a long-established system.
The Washington Teachers’ Union, which represents public school teachers in the District of Columbia and is affiliated with the AFT, has voiced support for charter school unions.
“Being a union member of 40 years allowed me and my colleagues to advocate more effectively for our students and our profession. If I had not been a union member, I would not have had the courage to stand strong,” WTU President Elizabeth Davis said.
Two charter schools in the District have tried to unionize this year. Currently, none of the public charter schools in the nation’s capital is unionized.
In February, Paul Public Charter School teachers petitioned to create a union through the AFT. Teachers cited high staff turnover and the need for a stronger voice. They wanted to be able to speak up about how to improve the school without the fear of being fired. But plans at Paul stalled when not enough teachers were willing to publicly vote to unionize.
Last week, a “decisive majority” of teachers at Chavez Prep Middle School, a public charter school in Northwest, filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election before the end of the school year.
The AFT says the petition is the culmination of a two-year organizing effort after “teachers stood up to win more resources for kids, a real say in school decision-making, and job security.”
Eighth-grade English teacher Mateo Samper said administrators at Chavez Prep have been dedicated and supportive and that unionization is not an indictment on them.
“We have banded together in order to serve our students better. This union is not about my colleagues, the staff or the administrators; it’s bigger than the sum of its parts,” Mr. Samper said.
The AFT has had its most success in Chicago, and its influence already is being felt as several schools in the city were set to strike over salary negotiations.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Passages Charter School, which is run by the Asian Human Services nonprofit, averted a strike late last month by negotiating a new teacher contract. Teachers at the Aspira Charter School Network reached a deal on their contract in March just a week before they were set to strike. Teachers in the UNO Charter School Network carved out a deal in October that averted a strike.
Educators at the Noble Network of Charter Schools announced in March that they would seek to form a union.
Still, Mr. Ziebarth said, the AFT and other groups have not been particularly successful in organizing charter school teachers despite the big push.
“They’ve picked off schools here and there, but it pales in comparison to schools that aren’t unionized,” he said.