Jacques: Union targets Detroit charters with old enemy

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

A union is targeting Detroit's charter schools in an organizing drive significantly aided by a former enemy.

While most of the state's traditional public schools are unionized, charters have remained largely union free -- only a handful have been organized over the past 20 years. The last one to do so in Detroit was Cesar Chavez Academy in 2013.

But now the American Federation of Teachers — Michigan has found a potent new weapon to break open charters. They've co-opted a number of instructors from Teach for America.

Teach for America, which has about 230 active teachers in its Detroit corps, takes some of the brightest college graduates from around the country and places them for two years in high-poverty urban districts. About 60 percent of the TFA teachers in Detroit work in charter schools.

Until now, Teach for America has been an anathema to the union because it sees its recruits as taking jobs that should go to union teachers.

In an interesting twist, the AFT is using Teach for America members to lead organizing drives at charter schools.

Two charter school districts in Detroit are in the midst of organizing drives led in part by TFA instructors. University YES Academy, which is part of New Urban Learning, has scheduled a union vote for May 6.

Closely behind is U Prep Schools, which includes University Prep Science and Math and University Prep Academy schools—some of the better charter schools in the city. A TFA teacher is reportedly leading the drive to form a union at U Prep, and a dozen other TFA teachers are on board.

The U Prep schools filed their petition to unionize Wednesday, and will schedule a vote in the near future, says Nate Walker, K-12 organizer and policy analyst for AFT-Michigan. He's based in Detroit.

Walker says he waits for teachers to come to him before he gets involved with organizing efforts. And he's hearing from an increasing number of teachers from charters throughout the city.

Walker doesn't think it's surprising that TFA teachers would join the labor bandwagon. He say they get excited about being involved in the decision-making process and becoming school leaders.

"They're mission driven and want to improve the quality of education for all children," says Walker.

Walker has connections with TFA, having gone through the program himself. Starting in 2002, he worked for five years as a Teach for America instructor in Detroit Public Schools. After a stint away at graduate school, he returned to teaching—this time at University Prep Academy.

So he's familiar with the TFA crowd and how these teachers think.

The administrations at charter schools are much less enthusiastic about the prospect of their teachers forming a union, and believe that unionization will serve as a barrier to the innovative work charter schools are supposed to do—largely because of the flexibility they have, without the constraints of union contracts.

Mark Ornstein, CEO of Detroit 90/90, which operates U Prep schools, is displeased about the prospect of a third party coming between the administration and teachers. Plus, he says U Prep leaders have worked closely with teachers regarding their concerns.

"It's like they're unionizing just to unionize," Ornstein says.

Tiffany Taylor, who heads TFA Detroit, says she is aware of TFA teachers' involvement in these unionization attempts but that the organization does not take a stance on unionization efforts.

"We are no way leading the charge," Taylor says.

Taylor also says she's not worried that the TFA teachers' association with forming unions will deter other charter schools from taking on her teachers.

"It's not a concern, since we have built strong relationships with our partners and they continue to see the value that our teachers bring," she says.

That seems naive. Charter administrators observing what's happening in Detroit are likely to be wary of taking on potential union organizers.

And with more than 50 percent of Detroit students now in charter schools, the AFT will continue working to build membership at these schools through the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff—an affiliate of the union.

Charter school leaders are going to have to work harder than ever to convince their teachers that forming a union isn't their best option.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.