Teachers' Unions Spend Big Bucks to Infiltrate Charter Schools

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The nation's leading teachers' union and its largest state affiliate are planning an aggressive campaign to unionize charter school teachers, who represent a growing faction of workers outside of the unions' realm.

The National Education Association is committing upwards of $1.75 million over the next three years for the effort. It will begin in California, where the state affiliate is devising a strategy to convince charter school teachers to join the California Teachers Association.

"One of the things we noticed early on in the charter school movement was that the teachers in those schools were inadequately compensated in the form of salary and benefits," said Tom Conry, chairman of CTA's charter school workgroup. "And no apologies to anybody, we're a union, and we believe teachers should be adequately compensated."

The effort, only in its beginning stages, will rely heavily on affiliates across the state, Conry said. The CTA plans to spend about $500,000, about half of which comes from the NEA. According to notes from the union's October meeting, the NEA board of directors voted 134-41 to allocate a total of $1.75 million to the effort, which would also serve to "slow the creation of charter schools."

"In order for CTA to support the beginning of a charter school," Conry said, "we believe the teachers in that school must be represented by an organization, they must bargain a contract, they must be under the rules of a contract and have all the guarantees that other teachers in the state have."

Although the CTA was unable to disclose precise figures on the number of charter schools with union representation in California, a union researcher said it was about 35 percent.

Nationally, that number is likely much lower, according to some education analysts. It is difficult to gauge because of the constant flux of charter schools, which continue to grow and change with the times. Some charters, for instance, are converted public schools that may have retained a union, while others are started from scratch.

As for their effectiveness, charter schools have generally stacked up well. According to a study released last July by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, charter schools slightly outperformed public schools serving similar student populations. The differences were small, but the study's researchers expressed optimism about better performance in the future.

California has been a leader in the charter school revolution from the beginning. It was the second state to allow charters, and in 1993, the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center became the first public school in the state to convert to charter status.

The school's principal, Yvonne Chan, oversaw the transition and also witnessed the teachers' decision to separate from their union in Los Angeles. Today, Vaughn's teachers rely on services provided by the California Charter Schools Association, but they themselves make up the school's governing body.

"There's not a need for a union. There isn't a need for representation," said Susie Oblad, a Vaughn teacher who has taught third, fourth and fifth grades, and will next year tackle eighth grade math. Oblad has worked at the school for 11 years, including a time when the United Teachers of Los Angeles was still representing Vaughn teachers.

Chan questioned Conry's assertion that charter school teachers make less than their public school counterparts. According to her own research, teachers starting out at Vaughn make around $53,150 in their first year, compared to $41,718 for teachers at Los Angeles' public schools.

If teachers at Vaughn were to enter into a collective bargaining agreement, Chan said they would have to take a pay cut. They would also be responsible for about $700 in union dues, she said. Those were reasons enough for them to opt out of union representation in 1998. But Chan said they also felt they weren't getting adequate representation and were constrained by the union's rules.

"If you don't need them to protect you, then why pay them to protect you," Oblad said.

But not all charter school administrators embrace Chan's view. At Green Dot Public Schools, the founder and chief executive insisted from the start that his employees belong to a union. Steve Barr, best known for creating Rock the Vote, an initiative to get youth involved in politics, entered the charter school field in 1999. A year later, he opened Animo Leadership Charter High School in Los Angeles.

"If you're going to make systematic change, you can't go into an industry that's 100 percent unionized, and just pretend like it's not there," Barr said.

He said his teachers make 10 percent above the average salary of teachers at surrounding public schools. His schools also strive to be in the top 25 percent of the pay scale in Los Angeles County.

Barr operates three schools with about 90 teachers, and he hopes to add up to 40 more next year. He said unions and charter schools do mix, even though they need to function differently from public schools. As part of the arrangement at Green Dot, for instance, teachers do not have tenure.

"I'm astonished at the resistance to this," Barr said. "I've always told the people in the charter school world that at some point when we get to a critical mass, the unions will come and organize you. As long as you are under the radar it's not a big deal."

Edison Charter Schools, one of the nation's leading providers with 120 schools, employs union and non-union teachers. Its president, Joe Keeney, said pay is competitive regardless of union representation. Unions might be able to do a better job lobbying for government money, he said, but ultimately it's up to the teachers to decide.

"The hallmarks of the charter school movement are choice, innovation and most importantly, accountability," Keeney said. "Whether or not they are unionized, it doesn't necessarily mean you lose any of those things."

Education reform watchdogs are fearful about what the future holds. Fordham Foundation President Chester E. "Checker" Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said teachers' unions want to hold onto members, and going after charter schools is a way to bolster their numbers and instill fear.

"It's bad for charter schools win or lose," Finn said. "Because if they win, it will have come at the cost of time and money to fend off the union's move. And if they lose, they will obviously end up with unionized teachers, which will make their lives harder in a wide variety of ways and make the charter schools more like regular schools."

Union watchdog Mike Antonucci, whose Education Intelligence Agency Communiqu? first reported the details of the NEA's plan, said with public school enrollment expected to level off in the next five to six years, teachers' unions are scrambling to ensure their growth.

"How do you keep that union behemoth growing? The only way to do it is to seek out new, unorganized teachers, and charter schools because they're growing," Antonucci said. "It's a sign of desperation on their part."

A spokeswoman for the NEA was unable to locate any union representatives to speak to CNSNews.com about charter schools. Mike Billirakis, a member of the union's executive committee who presented the plan at the October board meeting, didn't return calls.

When asked about the criticism, Conry said the CTA would move ahead with its agenda. The union supports charter schools, he said, but it also has a responsibility to reach out to teachers who aren't represented.

"For those charter schools that embraced the concept, 'Don't put any rules on us and we'll do a good job,' the reality has been that they have taken advantage of that and they have paid teachers very low salaries," he said. "Their health benefits are often non-existent or very minimal."

Even though charter school advocates roundly disputed those claims, they said it would ultimately be up to charter school teachers to decide whether to unionize, and that was anything but certain.

"The enthusiasm for unions among teachers in charter schools is relatively low," said Paul Kersey, labor policy research associate at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "I think that indicates they have good relations with the employers, which allows them to operate without a union and feel comfortable doing so."

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