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Charter schools are public schools, right?

By Guest blogger on Oct 24, 2011 04:15 PM

This guest blog post is from David Stovall, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


As an educator, I have followed the evolving national debate on charter schools with great interest. But one aspect of this important debate is of particular and growing concern: the obstructionist approach of many charter operators toward the democratic right of teachers to form a union. 

In Chicago (where I teach), several charter schools have become unionized, but not without stiff resistance from administrators.

Not surprisingly, Philadelphia is the site of similar struggles, as charter teachers increasingly assert their right to join a union. Unfortunately, as in Chicago, they face determined resistance from their employers.  

But as charter schools expand in both cities, and indeed across the nation, one thing about them is universally understood: they are public schools.

On this, all stakeholders - school operators, parents, teachers, community members, foundations, governments - agree. Charter schools are funded by public dollars and are “political subdivisions” established by state legislatures. End of story, right?

Not so, according to officials at Philadelphia’s New Media Technology Charter School. As Martha Woodall described in a June 2 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, in order to fight a unionizing effort, New Media is “trying to break legal ground by contending that it is not a public school - even though it's funded entirely by taxpayers.”

On May 2, 2011, New Media teachers filed a petition for union representation and asked the administration to voluntarily recognize their union. But instead of granting recognition, school officials challenged the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board and argued that New Media was a “private school” subject to the authority of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But there is no doubt that Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law gives charter employees the right to organize under the Public Employee Relations Act.

Our national debate on education reform has taken many shapes and forms, but only rarely - because it is considered settled policy - has the “public character” of charter schools been questioned.

Last year an Illinois charter school, Chicago Mathematics and Science Academy (CMSA), promptly invoked “private employer” status when its teachers filed a petition for union representation. Like New Media, CMSA is trying to avoid giving recognition to its teachers’ union.

Though the verdicts are pending, both cases have already ignited a highly consequential debate in our national education discourse: are charter schools public or private?

The charter school movement has always denied - and is very sensitive to - charges that it represents a deeper agenda to privatize public education. Indeed, many charter schools go out of their way to identify as “public charter schools.”

But with New Media’s “private employer” claim, it appears charters want to have it both ways: they are “public” when they want public dollars, but “private” when they want to prevent teachers from unionizing. At the very least, New Media’s actions remove any doubt that some charter advocates want to privatize public schools. Why else would a publicly funded school claim to be private?

The resistance to union rights betrays a simplistic evaluation of why schools fail in the first place. It shows a lack of appreciation of the myriad problems that complicate the learning environment, key among them the worsening economic conditions in many urban neighborhoods.

Charter schools would be well served to see unions as a potential ally, a bulwark against these economic challenges - rather than something they need to fear. What if the charter and labor movements joined together to fight for better and equal funding for all schools, good-paying jobs, and better health care for all? Imagine how much political power such an alliance could generate!

Furthermore, aside from the fact that organizing is a legally protected right, empowering charter teachers gives them the liberty to advocate for students without fear of repercussion. It also effectively deputizes them to serve as the eyes and ears for taxpayers, ensuring the appropriate use of tax dollars by schools and their CEOs. Indeed, as charters increasingly model themselves after the private sector, taxpayers should rightly worry that many have adopted some of its worst practices - among them the excessive compensation of CEOs, often at the expense of student needs.

But, the assault on union rights has other implications beyond the school.

By undermining union rights, especially in this perilous moment for U.S. labor, charter schools such as New Media align themselves with an agenda - championed by GOP governors - to eviscerate unions altogether. And for African American communities already battered by job flight, low wages, and the mortgage-lending crisis, the attack on labor is especially ominous. More than 27 percent of unionized Black workers are employed in the public sector. Indeed, without unions, many public policies important to African Americans - education funding, good wages, health care access, and maintaining the social safety-net - will be imperiled.

In the long run, no school - not even the most innovative ones - will succeed if certain sectors of urban communities continue to spiral downwards.

The attack on unions might make sense to some politicians and charter school officials, but it profoundly undermines the economic interests of our communities. New Media Technology Charter School needs to do the right thing and immediately recognize its teachers’ union. Doing so will confer appropriate honor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s memory, and to one of our country’s best traditions - the right to join a union!


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Comments (12)

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on October 24, 2011 5:45 pm

 "The attack on unions might make sense to some politicians and charter school officials, but it profoundly undermines the economic interests of our communities."

Thank you David Stovall. It is not about saying what we won't do, it is about making sure we can do, and having recourse when things go awry. 

Submitted by Tony A. (not verified) on October 24, 2011 9:01 pm

Unions killed industry in Philadelphia and the thousands of jobs that went with it. Unions killed education by amassing political power to protect the jobs of bad teachers. Look at what the teachers union has done to the Neshaminy School District - four years of refusal to search for a middle ground has resulted in four cohorts that are forever damaged. Mr. Stovall, I am sure that you are a very smart and well read man, come and spend some time in the Kensington section of Philadelphia and look at how unions have laid waste to a once proud neighborhood. Come and look at how heroin and prostitution have replaced jobs and displaced blue collar families. Then tell us why unionizing charter school teachers is a good thing.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 24, 2011 9:22 pm

I spend every day in Kensington and Hunting Park, and the problem is not too many unions. The PFT is the only reason kids in this city still get any education, by making sure classes have fewer then 33 students, schools have working water fountains, teachers get a say in how schools are run and opportunities for PD, Special Ed and ELL students are not shoved into the boiler room, and so many more.

The decline of manufacturing in America has a lot more to do with jobs shipping overseas, a decline in consumerism, increased costs, and increased technology. Jobs were shipped overseas because it is cheaper than minimum wage and the government refuses to impose appropriate tariffs, not because unions wanted health care.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 25, 2011 9:51 pm

Not sure about that 33 students in a class data. My son is at a SDP school with PFT teachers and there are more than 33 students in a class.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 25, 2011 9:38 pm

Is this still true in the past week or so? Leveling occured two weeks ago, and some teachers couldn't start for a few days due to having no notice to get childcare, etc. If they still have more than 33, that is a serious problem.

Submitted by Hope Moffett (not verified) on October 24, 2011 9:37 pm

This is a well written post that makes a compelling case.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 25, 2011 10:10 am

Hope, I wish more people would have made the connection that, had you not been in a union, you could have been immediately fired for standing up like you did. Some of your biggest cheerleaders on Philly.com etc. also regularly demonize the PFT...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 25, 2011 7:42 pm

Actually, she most likely couldn't have been legally fired for speaking out, as long as it happened outside of instructional time. There are pretty strong first amendment protections for public employees regarding free speech, which include teachers. The employment protections for government employees speaking out about matters of public interest is protected by the US Constitution, not the PFT contract.

In fact, if there were no union, speaking out probably would have given her extra protection. Without the public speech, her firing could be framed as totally discretionary (if there weren't a union). Speaking out on matters of public interest is one of the few things that the government (a public school) could not fire an at-will employee for. Without a union, a teacher could be fired basically for no reason at all, but could NOT be fired for speaking out on matters of public interest. Of course, the district, absent a contract, could claim it was for different reasons, but given the facts (exemplary performance evaluations, the timing of the incident, the exceptional quickness with which it was handled), Hope would probably have had an excellent wrongful termination suit against the District.

Unions aren't the primary protection of free speech nor against discrimination. The US Constitution and various civil rights/employment rights laws fill this role. Before such laws were on the books, the unions did fill this role, but now any employer, unionized or not, is barred from discrimination by law, and public employers cannot infringe on employee speech. The unions just make it easier to get legal representation and the threat of quicker legal response is probably a check on District from trying unlawful employment practices, but the actual law in this case (and why the District backed down immediately when the issue got to Court) was a fairly straightforward constitutional law test. In short, the union got hope a lawyer, but the Constitution kept her job.

In the modern era of extensive anti-discrimination legislation, the main different between unionized and at-will employment is the level of documentation that must be provided for dismissal.

So, technically, Hope could have immediately been terminated without the union, but she then would also have had an easily winnable civil rights claim against the District.

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on October 24, 2011 9:59 pm

Thank you for the post. I have witnessed first hand the efforts of a local charter school Board and CEO to deny teachers basic due process. The Board and CEO claim to be progressive but they are as regressive - and counter to their so-called charter - as any group I have encountered. Orwellian "double speak" dominated any mention of unionization.

Without a unionized work force, teachers not only work "at will" but risk their positions if they question anything done at the school. They also work for much less than their SDP counterparts.

As charter expand in Philadelphia, especially the mega charters like Mastery, unionized teachers have to assist our colleagues in gaining basic rights. Otherwise, in the long run, unionized workers will also lose rights.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 25, 2011 9:38 am

 Part of reforming the charter school law needs to be sanctions against charters that use unfair labor practices to deny their employees the right to choose a union.   Public dollars should not be going to charter schools that deny workers their basic rights.

Submitted by cgraham (not verified) on October 25, 2011 1:03 pm

Back in the 80s, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on untapped sources of capital. They stated that most markets were saturated with he exception of public education. Since that time, education has been set upon by people whose sole pu...rpose was to siphon public dollars into private companies. In order to siphon off the money from public education, the politicians, courts, and social engineers first had to destroy public education. This they did over the past 25 years with bad 'student's rights generated' legislation, ridiculous court decisions, and misguided 'politically correct meddling.' After they ruined the schools, they then came up with new 'ideas,' not to SAVE public education, but to offer alternatives to the system they had ruined. They knew that education was the last area of untapped money. They used charter legislation to get their hands on that money and have been bilking the system ever since. Believe me, it's not about education-it about money !! And unions have no place in their plan.

Submitted by goma (not verified) on June 6, 2014 7:06 am
What are the reasons why teachers are not allowed to form a union? What is there to gain from this? jocuri gratis

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