A recent phone call from a teacher at a charter school to an organizer at AFT Massachusetts told a typical tale. The teacher reported that she and her colleagues were troubled by the way their school was being run and wanted to investigate the possibility of forming a union.
Such calls are increasingly common, reports AFT’s Glenn Scott, who assists charter school teachers in their organizing efforts. “We hear the same stories again and again. Teachers at Massachusetts charter schools want a real voice in decision making and they want to be treated like professionals.”
A stronger school
Teachers and staff at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Orleans recently became the second charter school in Massachusetts to unionize. Teachers at the middle school, which serves 200 6th, 7th and 8th graders, say that they were motivated by a simple desire: to strengthen the 17 year old institution. Teachers at the Conservatory Lab School in Brighton became the first charter school educators to unionize in 2009.
A stronger school
Explains sixth grade teacher Josh Stewart: “I firmly believe that organizing will result in a stronger school in all regards, with the students, the staff, and the administration sharing in the benefits.” Teachers at the Cape charter are now working with school administrators to shape a contract that they hope will afford them the benefits and rights they deserve, including provisions for class-size, child care leave and standardized performance evaluations.
Wanted: a voice
Nearly 3,000 teachers are currently employed by charter schools in Massachusetts, a number that will increase significantly this fall with the opening of 16 new schools, 10 in Boston alone. Unlike traditional public school teachers, educators at charter schools cannot negotiate with administrators over how the schools are run; nor are their rights and working conditions spelled out by the contracts that protect every other public school teacher in the state. Massachusetts, which consistently leads the nation—and ranks near the top of the world—in academic performance, also has the highest concentration of unionized public school faculty in the country.
A state of insecurity
Unlike educators at district schools, charter school teachers are typically employed on one year contracts, meaning that they never know whether they’ll have a job in the coming school year. The arrangement, says Scott, produces tremendous insecurity and anxiety among the teaching staff at many charter schools in addition to far higher rates of staff turnover than at district schools. “The most common complaint we hear is that when all of the power rests in the hands of a principal teachers no longer have the opportunity to lead,” says Scott.
The innovation challenge
Charter advocates argue that it is the absence of negotiated contracts between teachers and administrators that makes the schools laboratories for innovation. But a growing number of charter school teachers say that the opposite is the case—that putting too much power in the hands of a single principal or director makes innovation harder, not easier. One such teacher, who spoke to AFT Massachusetts on the condition that neither his name nor the name of the school where he teaches be identified, described a culture in which teachers fear that they could lose their jobs at any time, where the principal challenges sick days and recently cut teachers’ prep time in half—with no explanation. “We want to do these great things with the kids. But I also want to know that I’m making a fair wage, that I’m going to have a job next year and that procedures aren’t suddenly going to change.”
For teachers at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, it was the desire for more input in the way their school is run that ultimately convinced them that forming a union was the appropriate step. Explains David Agnew, the school’s network coordinator: “I believe that unionization will provide staff the opportunity for a recognized democratic process to reach agreement on matters of common interest, allowing us to speak to our community with a stronger, more unified voice.”