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Summer 2010 Vol. 17. No. 6 Focus on Charter Schools

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Alliance seeks to unionize Philly charters

By by Ron Whitehorne on May 26, 2010 04:14 PM

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. Ted Kirsch

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.

About the Author

Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and a member of the Notebook editorial board.

Comments (12)

Submitted by emmiles on June 4, 2010 10:01 pm

Thank you for this article, Mr. Whitehorne! It certainly seems as though teachers unions have not outlived their purpose.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2010 10:44 am

You're right, because their purpose is to bring in more dues.

Submitted by emmiles on June 6, 2010 4:41 pm

So that teachers and students don't have to live with conditions such as...

"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."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 7, 2010 8:58 pm

They need to start from the top of Leadership and the Board members. Start the union and stop playing with these children education.

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 17, 2010 8:45 pm

I've worked under a union in Philadelphia public schools before, and now I work in a charter school without a union. I have much more freedom and security without the union, the children are protected from bad teachers who can't be fired (I would pass a classroom in the middle of the day in my old school and literally see a teacher reading the paper, etc., etc.), my money doesn't go to dues used primarily for political purposes, and I'm now treated like a professional and not like I and all teachers are stupid (I remember getting papers from the union TELLING us who we were supposed to vote for in an election). The children have so much more opportunity for learning at my current school. I would never go back; if a union came in, I would quit.

Submitted by Joe Hill (not verified) on June 17, 2010 8:24 pm

Yeah, this really sounds like something a real teacher would write. Just exactly how did your former union inhibit your "freedom and security"? Outside of the political spiels you get from the PFT your post sounds like nothing more than charter propaganda. Things are so wonderful at the charters the teachers are quitting in droves out of guilt. Like I've said before, charters are the first to hire teachers fired from Philly public schools so that "teacher" you saw reading the newspaper is probably now working at a charter. Maybe he's checking the want ads because the charters are so wonderful he can't stand it?

There is alot I dislike about the PFT, mainly their inaction when it comes to protecting their members, but I never felt they threatened my "freedom and security". That was the administration's job. The above post sounds like another charter CEO's plant. Let's go back to the bad, old days of having to kick back some of your paycheck to the local political machine or when you could be fired for not having your window shades all at the same level. You are the one who must think teachers are stupid. Who would believe such a lame post outside of one of those dumb, unionized teachers?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 17, 2010 11:09 pm

I accidentally replied as a new comment...I'm kind of floored by how angry you are and how negatively you responded to my post...aside from my comment below, to get back to the main point: I guess my two main issues with unions are 1-PA is not a "right-to-work" state; if teachers (or workers in other fields) had a real choice/freedom whether to join or not I'd be more comfortable with them being in a school, and 2-the "newspaper teachers" never get fired under the union, which does not put the students' needs first. With those two changes, you might win me over...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 19, 2013 2:16 pm
Then please do! Your post sounds like another corporate charter plant posing as a real teacher post. First off, bad and even good teachers can be fired at unionized schools so let's kill that propaganda right away. Secondly, if the story you claim about a teacher reading the paper was true then why aren't you demanding the principal be fired as well? Any principal that allows the teacher to do that during class time should be gone. Who protects good teachers at your school from bad children and administrators?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 17, 2010 10:26 pm

Um, no, I'm a real teacher. I taught in SDP in Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, and have taught in 2 charter schools, mostly 1st and 2nd grade. Staying where I am as long as I can. We can develop our own curriculum, while in SDP you have to do exactly what you're told--I suppose that's not from the union but the district, so okay, I'll give you that point, but what we can do educationally for our students vs. what I could do in SDP--I wouldn't give that up for anything!!!! That's the most important thing, and it's worth making less money...also, you have to be careful about generalizing about charter schools. They are, by their very nature, all different. We tend to have very few openings, and even if a "newspaper reading" teacher somehow got into our school, they would not be there long!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2011 2:17 pm

All clear thinking people need to be unionized if that option is possible. If you disagree, either you are an administrator or you are not clear thinking. Sorry, but humans deserve protection against arbitrary and unfair actions from administrators who have a different agenda. This is NOT complicated stuff.

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