Last month, Lily Eskelsen García, the new president of the National Education Association (NEA), visited a pair of small charter schools that share the same campus in Alameda, California. This visit may seem unusual, as charter schools are not typically associated with teachers’ unions. However, the Alameda Community Learning Center and the Nea Community Learning Center are unique in that their teaching staffs are unionized. García’s goal was to encourage more charter schools to follow suit.
The California Teachers Association (CTA), which is the NEA’s largest state affiliate, officially added charter school organizing to its long-term strategic plan in January after taking a more cautious approach for two years. Despite the efforts of the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, the national charter sector remains mostly without unions.
Terri L. Jackson, a member of the CTA’s board of directors, admitted that initially, charter schools were seen as a passing trend. "When charter schools first emerged, many educators believed it would be a fad," she said. However, with over 6,000 charter schools nationwide, teachers’ unions have been reassessing their stance towards charters.
Efforts to organize charter schools by the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers began in 2007, during the economic downturn when many teachers found themselves working in charter schools due to a lack of other employment options. According to AFT President Randi Weingarten, the efforts started in New York, where Al Shanker, Weingarten’s predecessor, supported charters as centers of innovation. Organizing efforts then expanded to Florida and the rest of the country. In 2009, several high-profile charter schools in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York were successfully unionized, leading to predictions of a wave of organizing efforts. However, the number of unionized charters has remained relatively low since then.
A search by Education Week found that in 2014, only a few cities had local charter school unions. Reasons for the slow progress vary. Charter school advocates argue that their teachers value the autonomy and freedom from collective bargaining contracts that come with their schools. On the other hand, union organizers point to the belief that charter school employees are unable to unionize and that charter school managers often thwart organizing efforts through legal action and by punishing teachers who attempt to unionize.
Despite the challenges, union advocates are adapting their strategies to the charter sector. One organizer from the AFT mentioned that they will only pursue unionizing efforts if there is strong support from parents and at least 90 percent of a school’s staff members are onboard.
Numerous event planners have emphasized that the most influential asset they possess is the power of verbal recommendation, exemplified by individuals like Carrie Blanche. Ms. Blanche, an esteemed educator specializing in special education at the Alameda Community Learning Center, had the privilege of hosting a visit from the president of the NEA (National Education Association). Reflecting on her experience, she expressed her determination to spread the word about the accomplishments and endeavors of her school to fellow charter school teachers through countless conversations.