Kudos to Rachel M. Cohen [@rmc031] for her American Prospect piece about charter school unionization (When Charters Go Union), which is a timely update on a small but important issue no matter which side of the reform/critic divide you happen to occupy.
As Cohen lays them out, the challenges to both unions and charter advocates are pretty clear:
Traditional unions are grappling with how they can both organize charter teachers and still work politically to curb charter expansion. Charter school backers and funders are trying to figure out how to hold an anti-union line, while continuing to market charters as vehicles for social justice.
The piece also helpfully explains the teachers unions’ recent turn towards a dual strategy of critiquing low-performing charters (especially for-profit ones) via the Annenberg Standards while also embarking on a series of organizing efforts:
Beginning in 2007 and 2008, the AFT set up a national charter-organizing division, and today has organizers in seven cities: L.A., Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, and Philadelphia.
Like me, you have heard a bit about the Annenberg Standards for charter schools but not really known what they are or how they were being advanced. You may be surprised to learn that NACSA — the association of authorizers comes out as more critical of them than NAPCS, the association of charter operators. (Usually it’s the other way around when it comes to quality and accountability issues.)
And Cohen addresses the awkwardness for some teachers thinking about being represented by an organization that has previously seemed to deride their work and impact. She quotes on LA charter school teacher opposed to unionization:
How could I support a union that for the last ten years spent a good portion of their time attacking our right to exist?… They’ve spent the last ten years both supporting anti-charter school board members and fighting in Sacramento against what we do.
This tension remains or even grows with the unions’ interest in promoting new legislation that would limit charter expansion. And Cohen addresses that too.
There’s even a nice mention for Green Dot’s unionized network of charters and the evolution of the relationship between UTLA and AMU — gotta love that (especially if you wrote a book about Locke High School).
That’s not to say that there aren’t issues with the piece, however:
For starters, the evidence for the impact of unionization on student achievement (what little there is) is pushed to the bottom of the story when ideally it would have been touched on at the top (at least, right?). Readers should know early on that unionization or its absence doesn’t seem to make a dramatic difference when it comes to student outcomes.
Depth-wise, there aren’t very many voices from principals and administrators who’ve worked with unionized charter teachers — really just one at the end — or really from teachers who’ve been at unionized charters for a long while. So we hear from lots of charter teachers talking about organizing (generally in positive terms) but get very little sense of what it’s like working with unionized staff over the long haul.
It’s perhaps a minor complaint but there’s little or nothing until the very end of the piece about the difficulties that organizers have encountered in New York City when it comes to unionized charters (and no mention at all of the a well-publicized situation in which teachers at KIPP AMP voted to join the union then changed their minds). I’d be interested to learn more about organizing efforts that haven’t panned out, and why.
Last but not least, Cohen resorts to speculation when it comes to describing the non-academic benefits of unionization, especially when it comes to attracting and retaining effective teachers. If unionization doesn’t dramatically affect student achievement one way or the other, does it at least attract more qualified teachers or increase retention? It’s not clear. Cohen speculates that it does but I could imagine it working both ways.
Still, it’s a fascinating and helpful piece, over all, and I recommend it highly.
Update: Not everyone thinks charter unionization is such a big deal.
“This gets a lot of attention, but it still seems unlikely and pretty small scale,” writes NACSA’s Alex Medler. “All evidence is that scale still matters, and that it takes the right partners sticking around in the school long enough to pull it off.”
“I also wish it didn’t have that ‘new trends!!’ tone,” writes history professor Sherman Dorn. “The tensions are interesting enough, especially between state affiliates at NEA.”
Union watcher Mike Antonucci writes When Charters Go Union, Reporters Love Writing About It, noting that while there’s much to admire about Cohen’s piece “The idea that NEA and AFT staffers will crisscross the country, organizing a handful of teachers at a time at each individual charter and creating a groundswell of new membership flies in the face of experience and an understanding of the unions’ resources.”
An earlier version of this post appeared Friday at TWIE.