Opinion: Charter schools, the future of teachers unions

Ashley Jochim
"Charter schools and the teachers they employ have an opportunity to forge a new model," Jochim writes.

Efforts to organize charter schools show that teachers are open to unionization but not if unions don't adapt to the realities of today's schools and teachers and move beyond the industrial-style labor model of yesteryear.

To understand the future of teachers unions, it’s important to appreciate the role they played in the past. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) formed in Chicago near the end of the 19th century. At the time, the mostly female teachers were subject to the whims of the mostly male administrators. Wages were frozen at poverty levels. Classes were massive — sometimes crammed with as many as 60 students.

Teachers, through the AFT, would fight school district leaders for a single contract that would set pay and working conditions for every teacher in the school system — an effort meant to impose minimum standards on a system that left too many students with inadequate resources. The model also enabled unions to fight for higher salaries and win protections, like tenure, that protected them from losing their livelihoods at the hands of capricious or biased administrators.

But the world has changed since teachers unions first fought for representation, and two forces are beginning to put strain on the organizing model of the past.

First, charter schools, which typically are not unionized, have proliferated. They now enroll nearly half of Detroit’s public school students and employ nearly 10,000 teachers across Michigan. Yet teachers unions have struggled to organize charter school teachers in the state and the number of Michigan campuses where teachers are unionized remains in the single digits.

Second, teachers unions must contend with last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which makes it easier for public workers to opt out of union membership and union dues. The decision followed an expansion of right-to-work laws in states like Michigan; teachers union membership has fallen by about a fifth since 2013 when a new state law made it easier for workers, including teachers, to avoid joining unions or paying dues.

While they’ve yet to gain much traction in Michigan, the work of teachers unions with charter schools in other states offers lessons about how unions can respond when unionization must happen voluntarily.

Last month, we released a new report showing that overall, charter schools are no more likely to be unionized than they were a decade ago. At the same time, a growing number of charter schools nationwide are organizing by choice — meaning their teachers are entering collective bargaining agreements even though they are not required by state law.

Our research suggests that many charter school teachers are unionizing for some of the same reasons that drove teachers unions to form in the first place: mistrust of administrators, desire for influence, and growing concerns over teacher pay and working conditions.

But the model that enabled teachers unions to organize school districts during the 20th century does not translate seamlessly to the 21st century. The charter school teachers we spoke with did not always want teacher tenure provisions, which are a staple of most school district labor agreements. Collective bargaining agreements in the charter schools we studied preserved administrators’ flexibility in hiring, evaluation, and firing decisions.

Many teachers — charter and district alike — understand that districtwide collective bargaining agreements mean that some teachers and schools don’t get what they need.

Charter schools and the teachers they employ have an opportunity to forge a new model that enables educators to develop school-level solutions to the most pressing challenges facing public education. This approach would put an end to the “one-size-fits-all” collective bargaining agreements that too often end up empowering district administrators and weakening opportunities for school leadership.

Teachers we spoke with wanted the opportunity to lead change in their schools. If their unions want to build on the gains of the past, that’s one place to start.

Ashley Jochim is senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.