The twilight of the unionized charter school?

The first union to ever organize a Massachusetts charter school has disbanded. What was once hailed as a “historic organizing victory” by the American Federation of Teachers has dissolved after what yesterday’s Boston Globe described as “a long stretch of diminished activity.”

Unions are a poor fit for charters anywhere.

But conditions at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Massachusetts, have never been good for the union, and they highlight why unions are a poor fit for charters anywhere.

When teachers first organized at the Brighton school four years ago, Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said that he doubted unionization would work. “Generally, charter school teachers join charter schools because they don’t want to work in a unionized atmosphere,” he told the Globe.

Indeed, nearly all of the teachers who established the union left after just a few years, and the Globe reported last year that newer faculty members debated whether to dissolve it. Some said they saw the merit in having a contract but thought the American Federation of Teachers, with whom they were affiliated, cared more about its own agenda than the needs of the charter school.

Even the contract itself was unique: It contained not only a provision on merit pay but secured an active role for teachers to help design the curriculum. These are elements, however, that make charters special without the unions. The best charters work because management and faculty work in a collaborative, not adversarial, environment. Leadership has the freedom and flexibility to manage teachers with an eye toward student achievement, and teachers are encouraged to be entrepreneurial and share in the responsibility for student outcomes. Collective bargaining—which is adversarial by its very nature—imperils all of this. If anything, the presence of charters in most major urban areas has successfully applied pressure on school districts to push harder at the bargaining table.

Perhaps this helps explain why just 12 percent of all charters nationwide are unionized, according to 2010 data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Conversion district charter schools make up about a third of all unionized charters. Moreover,64 percent of all unionized charter schools are bound by state law to the collective bargaining agreements with their local districts (As Mike Antonucci observed last year, the unions’ ability to alter state laws for this purpose is one factor that helps explain the number of unionized charters that presently exist).

The sector largely has resisted the advances of either the National Education Association or the AFT. As Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter schools told the Globe yesterday, charters are typically set up “out of frustration with all things central,” to create environments where teachers have “a strong voice in the mission of the school.”

And as more charter networks and education management organizations take up a larger share of the charter sector, unions may find it even harder to gain a foothold. The alliance noted that, in 2010, about 28 percent of all charters were managed by either CMOs or EMOs, but just 10 percent of all unionized charters were managed by similar networks.

One school in Massachusetts, of course, doesn’t foreshadow the end of unionized charters, but it does give us a reason to reflect on what makes charters special. The teachers at Conservatory Lab Charter found the union irrelevant to their needs. Their circumstances are hardly unique.

More By Author

Related Articles