Monday, July 27, 2009

Charter Schools Unionize . . . And then What?

The NY Times has a piece this morning about charter school unionization that's worth reading.

It starts thusly: "Dissatisfied with long hours, churning turnover and, in some cases, lower pay than instructors at other public schools, an increasing number of teachers at charter schools are unionizing." Randi Weingarten strikes a similar note, saying that the unionization of some big-name charter schools this year is a "precursor" of things to come.

Meanwhile, one charter school advocate says “They’ll have a success here and there but unionized charters will continue to be a small part of the movement.”

I'm not sure that last part is true. I don't know, maybe he's right -- maybe unions and charter schools will rarely interact -- but for a lot of these schools it makes quite a bit of sense that teachers would eventually want to unionize. A lot of the so-called "no excuses" schools rely on recruiting bright, young teachers (often with no families) who are willing to work crazy hours for a few years before moving on to something bigger and better -- rather like joining the peace corps, in other words.

But what happens when some of these teachers get a little older, get married, have kids, tire of working 80 hour weeks, but still believe strongly in the mission of their school? “I was frustrated with all the turnover among staff, with the lack of teacher input, with working longer and harder than teachers at other schools and earning less,” says one teacher. And I can see that turning into a recurring theme.

We can only have so many schools relying on overworked young idealists before that labor pool will start to dry up. And a school can operate with such a staff for so long before the staff starts to age. And both occurrences almost have to lead to more unionization.

Charter schools are so new that nobody knows what will happen with them over the next five years, yet alone the next fifty. I can't imagine unions playing that big of a role in the next five years, but I can in the next fifty. What happens if, fifty years from now, the vast majority of charter schools are unionized? Will it ruin the charter school movement? Save the charter school movement?

I think that largely depends on two things: how unions interact with the administrations of individual schools and how many charter schools are shut down when they stumble. While I'm largely skeptical of any claims that unions are the only reason anything is wrong with American schools, if enough schools unionize there are bound to be some where poisonous administration-staff relationships severely hurt the performance of the school. If this becomes the norm, then the charter school movement might be stopped in its tracks. But, if charters that struggle are quickly closed then all bets are off.

Personally, my guess is that unions won't strangle the charter school movement. I tend to believe that in most schools the lack or presence of a union has more subtle effects than many would believe. Particularly if individual charter schools negotiate many aspects of the contract with the teachers only in that school, I don't think things will change all that much -- which, of course, given our lack of knowledge on charter schools, we can't be sure is good or bad.


Rachel said...

I think what a lot of commentators miss is that unions can a have a lot of appeal for energetic, idealistic young people.

If charter schools want to keep teachers feeling that they will have more respect, autonomy and financial success without a union, they will need to make sure the teachers they want to keep feel that way.

But I don't think the fairly routine union-bashing that goes on among some charter proponents really helps their cause, because a lot of it comes across as teacher-bashing.

Anonymous said...

There's a bit about the issue of collective bargaining rights in this law review article: -- it worries about the danger that "charter school teachers are even more likely than traditional school teachers to be beset by the burnout caused by long working hours" (page 120)

Attorney DC said...

As a former teacher who has worked in both unionized and nonunionized school districts (in different states), I agree with Corey that unions have more subtle effects than many realize.

At least in the public school setting, I didn't witness big differences resulting from unionization. In fact, the unionized schools I worked in had bigger classes, smaller supply budgets and less prep time than the nonunionized schools. Of course, this may be different when applied to charter schools, which often require teachers to work longer hours than their public school counterpoints.

Rachel said...

Attorney DC wrote:
At least in the public school setting, I didn't witness big differences resulting from unionization. In fact, the unionized schools I worked in had bigger classes, smaller supply budgets and less prep time than the nonunionized schools.

How did the salaries compare? My major concern about the effect of unions is the pressure -- particularly in tough budget times -- to maintain/increase salaries even if it means increased workload and lower supply budgets.

Attorney DC said...

Rachel: In response to your question, it was hard to compare salaries b/c the comparison was between different states w/ different budgets. The unionized state I worked in was California, which has historically had many budget difficulties (in large part due to Prop 13, which essentially froze property taxes several decades ago). The non-unionized state I worked in was Virginia. In my particular districts, I believe the Virginia salaries were slightly higher than the California salaries.

Attorney DC said...

Rachel: I should also note that the salary comparison would not hold up across other districts. That is, there are many districts in Virginia where the salaries are lower than districts in California. Generally, the rural districts have significantly lower salaries than the urban and suburban districts.

Stephen Lentz said...

Great piece Corey. I think ultimately whether or not unions spread into the charter movement on a large scale will have to do with salaries/benefits/working conditions. As in all other industries, it's always tough for unions to spread into a field where workers are happy and well paid. If charters continue to work their teachers to death for a smaller amounts of money than their public counterparts, they'll have to face the prospect of unionization, and all of the baggage that brings.