If you can't beat 'em, join 'em: Cleveland teachers union wants to organize charter schools

Speaking to reporters last month about the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Academic Transformation Plan, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten warned that teachers need to be full partners in the district’s reform effort, “I am deadly serious about a reform agenda that does things with teachers, not to them.” Apparently, she wasn’t referring just to district school teachers. This week Cleveland’s AFT affiliate commenced with efforts to organize the city’s charter schools.

The Cleveland Teachers Union (CTU) made public records requests this week to Cuyahoga County charter schools asking for teachers’ names, years of experience, current salary, and other information, presumably in preparation for reaching out to the teachers about joining the CTU. Meanwhile, union officials issued a newsletter to its current members advising them of its efforts. In the newsletter, CTU President David Quolke and Director of Professional Issues Mark Baumgartner questioned why the district would want its students to be educated by charter schools, “What is in it for CMSD?”

For starters, how about better-educated students?

Six of the top ten schools in the city are charter schools. And the charter operators that the district wants to bring into its portfolio are among the best in Ohio. Take, for example, Citizens’ Academy, which the district school board is considering sponsoring. The school boasts outstanding academic achievement results year-in, year-out, and serves a population of students just as disadvantaged and academically challenged as the rest of the city.

How would a unionized teaching force impact the ability of a school like Citizens to continue its success? A quick review of the collective bargaining agreement shows that school leaders of organized charter schools would be severely restricted in how they hire, reassign, and compensate their teachers. Parent-teacher conferences, before- and after-school tutoring, and other interactions that are vital to successful charter schools could be capped. Collaboration among the teaching staff, another hallmark of outstanding charters, would be difficult if staff meetings were restricted to one hour per month as they are in district schools.

Executive Director of Citizens’ Academy, Perry White, asks a better question than “What’s in it for CMSD?”:

“The overriding question is how will having a teachers union improve on our ability to educate all of our children and make sure they’re ready to graduate from college? We respect that they represent the interests of teachers; we represent the interests of students.”

It’s not all bad. Unionized charter teachers in Cleveland would reap some benefits – like being able to avoid even the sight of school lunches and having a say about where vending machines are placed in their buildings (as provided for in Article 11, Section 3, and Article 13, Section 1 of the CTU contract respectively).

A version of this piece appeared on Fordham’s Flypaper blog.

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