Jacques: Do unions spell charter school doom?

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Several charter schools in Detroit are battling to keep teachers unions out.

Last week, teachers at University YES Academy voted to organize. And today teachers at U Prep Schools will hold their vote. It's expected to be close.

What do charter schools stand to lose when their teachers organize?

Charters, alternative public schools, have existed the past 20 years on the premise they have the flexibility and ability to innovate that leads to better outcomes for students.

Much of that flexibility is tied to the fact the vast majority of charter schools are not unionized. If that changes, it's a huge blow to what sets these schools apart.

Only a handful of charters in Michigan have formed a union. If U Prep schools join those ranks, it could double the membership of the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff—an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a school reform research group based at the University of Washington, says little is known about the long-term effects of unions on charter schools. Her organizationdid a study on this a few years ago.

"Unions can be tough on schools," Lake says.

About 12 percent of all charter schools nationwide are unionized. And half of those have unions because they are forced to by local laws.

Clearly, unions aren't appealing to most charter management companies. For instance, ahead of the University YES vote, its management company New Urban Learning announced it was backing out of its agreement to operate the schools.

And no other management company has shown an interest in taking on University YES. That uncertainty is not good news for the teachers who work at these schools—or the students.

Similarly, when teachers at Detroit charter school Voyageur Academy voted to unionize a year ago, the school board decided to replace the management company Leona Group with a new one. American Promise Schools, the latest charter effort by Doug Ross, took over and only hired back about 10 percent of teachers.

Not much evidence exists regarding how students fare once a charter unionizes. But a study published last year tried to answer the question by examining charter schools in California that had formed unions. Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota, and Cassandra Hart, a researcher at the University of California-Davis, found that apart from a one-year dip associated with the unionization process, student achievement remained stable at the schools.

Lake says teachers usually try to organize when they aren't happy with their administrators or management company—and when they start to feel ostracized from the school's mission.

But sometimes outside influences stir the pot, as has been the case at University YES and U Prep. Nate Walker, K-12 organizer and policy analyst for AFT-Michigan, has made it his mission to get teachers on the union bandwagon. And he's used many inexperienced teachers, including some with the Teach for America program, to establish entry points.

Patrick Sheehan, who has taught for two years at University Prep Science and Math Elementary School through the TFA program, supports unionizing because he thinks it would give teachers more of a voice and add stability to the district.

Yet many other teachers at U Prep see a union as unnecessary and even detrimental.

The best charter schools create a strong team of staff and administrators working toward the same goal for their students.

Unions create conflicts that can only disrupt charter schools' unique mission. Bringing in the teachers unions will make charters that much more like the traditional schools parents are fleeing.

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