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Ted Kirsch, now the head of the statewide teachers’ federation, AFT Pennsylvania, sits at his desk surrounded by a wall of pictures spanning his four decades as a teacher unionist. 

The former longtime president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers points with pride to a youthful, slimmer version of himself with Martin Luther King Jr. and talks of past struggles and victories.

As state president, Kirsch faces a new challenge: the rapid growth of charter schools and a consequent decline in union membership in Philadelphia. The federation’s response calls to mind the words of labor martyr Joe Hill, who famously said “Don’t mourn, organize!” 

Teachers at three of Philadelphia’s 67 charter schools have won union representation; a fourth, Germantown Settlement, closed last year.

The federation’s local vehicle for organizing these teachers is the Alliance for Charter School Employees. 

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Two of the schools, Delaware Valley and Wakisha, have opted for union representation since last year. It is not yet a trend, but a hopeful sign to union organizers. 

Common grievances

Organizers and rank-and-file teachers alike cite tight resources, salary complaints, lack of transparency and due process, and instability due to staff turnover as common issues that push charter teachers towards unionizing. 

Teacher retention has been an issue at Delaware Valley Charter High School in Logan, where teachers voted to join the union by a 30-18 vote in November and are now negotiating a contract. First-year teacher and organizing committee member Dan Murphy says roughly a quarter of the current staff is new this year. He estimates that roughly half of the teaching staff is tenured.

Murphy says he arrived at Delaware Valley to teach physics in September and found a handful of spring scales and no curriculum beyond a beat-up teacher’s edition of a text. Eight textbooks were available for students. He says the school has directed teachers in different subject areas to write a curriculum, but there is a dispute about how teachers will be compensated for that work.

For Murphy, who has taught at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, the advantages of having a union were clear. “Being an at-will employee is not a comfortable thing, and due process is always going to be an issue,” Murphy says. 

Discipline, a critical issue for regular public school teachers, is also a concern at Delaware Valley, he says. “Inconsistency…saying one thing and doing another…is a problem.” He cites the gap between the school’s rhetorically strict policy of no cell phones and indulgent practice where administrators do nothing more than admonish students to put the devices away. 

Last spring, after more than 80 percent of the school’s teachers signed union cards, the administration agreed to the formation of a discipline committee of teachers to address some of these issues but quietly shelved the idea in the fall, Murphy says.

At Delaware Valley, as at many charters, a transparent salary schedule is an issue. “Because market conditions lead to teachers being hired at different salaries at different times, it is not uncommon to find teachers of comparable experience and credentials earning different salaries,” Murphy explains.

The first charter school in the city to vote in a union was West Oak Lane in 1999. 

Mark Van Ooyen, a union member and health teacher at West Oak Lane, believes the union has brought more stability to the school. The union provides “protection from the whims of the administration” and gives teachers some voice in shaping their work environment, he said. 

For Van Ooyen, it provides a vehicle for addressing the central issue of “respecting and collaborating with teachers as professionals.” 

He says the administration has learned to live with the union, but conflicts remain. When teachers planned to wear union T-shirts, the administration objected, arguing that this action threatened the idea of the school as one community. 

Loss of flexibility feared

Some charter school advocates maintain that unions will also inhibit innovation and deny charters needed flexibility.

AFT Pennsylvania staffer Candy Lerner, who has been both a charter school teacher and administrator, disputes the notion that unions subvert a charter school’s ability to innovate. 

Lerner notes that charter school contracts are typically "thin" and lack the complex provisions that characterize a large urban district like Philadelphia.  The contract at West Oak Lane, for example, is 30 pages long.

“We see the union as partners in the process of implementing the charter’s vision,” she says. 

Wakisha Charter School is a case in point. The middle school, now based in North Philadelphia with 370 students and 26 faculty members, features an African-centered curriculum. Last month, teachers ratified a new three-year contract that provided annual raises following a successful organizing drive in 2009. 

According to Lerner, the Wakisha teachers saw unionization as a step to strengthen the school’s mission. 

In a letter they sent to teachers seeking to organize at a Chicago charter school last year, Wakisha teachers described their efforts as “keeping the focus on strengthening the school we love…through an active partnership where teachers are respected as professionals.” 

After settling on a contract in April, Wakisha CEO Elbert Sampson said the agreement “will further our efforts to give our students the best education possible,” adding that “our dedicated teachers and staff are a key component” of the school’s foundation. 

Challenges to overcome

But organizing charters typically does encounter management resistance and other obstacles. A provision of Pennsylvania’s state takeover law requires that each charter school must be organized separately. 

High turnover makes it possible for charters to resist by delaying. At Delaware Valley, the school management successfully postponed an election last spring, and roughly a quarter of the teachers who had signed union cards were gone by September.

Six years ago at Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter, following a vote to unionize, The Inquirer reported that the school “canceled a scheduled holiday dinner for teachers, rescinded their $100 Christmas bonuses, and changed all the locks and alarm codes so the teachers could no longer enter the building early.” Two years later the union was decertified. 

To complement its organizing, the Alliance holds monthly staff development sessions for charter schoolteachers, offering free ACT 48 credits. Union staff say the professional development is designed to meet a real need, given the uneven offerings in charter schools. 

These sessions, which typically draw between 25 and 35 teachers and have waiting lists, provide a non-threatening venue for introducing the benefits of the union to teachers.

“Teachers, whether they’re in regular public schools or charters, are workers with the same need for decent pay, working conditions, and professional treatment,” Ted Kirsch observes.

The coming years will reveal whether this view is borne out by union gains in Philadelphia’s burgeoning charter school industry.

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