Tom Kuhny, a middle school teacher in Los Angeles, is a little incredulous when he hears the often-repeated canard that educational innovation and a unionized teaching force don’t mix.
“I find that ridiculous,” says Kuhny. “It’s surprising to me that people even think that. Our staff supports and promotes innovations in the classroom every day. Keeping our students challenged, raising standards—that was why we made the decision to move ahead.”
Kuhny teaches seventh-grade English at Ivy Academia, a charter school in Woodland Hills, Calif. With three campuses designated by grade level, Ivy is one of the highest- performing charters in California. The Ivy staff is committed to protecting the school’s success, so they officially joined United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
For Kuhny and his colleagues, organizing a union with UTLA represented a victory for students and staff.
“The teachers want input into the curriculum, calendar and school functions in order to support the students and their families,” says Katrina Daneshmand, an Ivy science teacher. “We know what our students are capable of and we would like some say in the way our classrooms are run.” Of 56 teachers, 54 voted to join the union and the school soon agreed to recognize the new organization.
Forty of Los Angeles’ 183 charter schools are unionized. In a charter-heavy state like California, there’s plenty of room for organizing campaigns to grow.
Similar opportunities exist in New Jersey, where the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) began organizing charter schools as soon as they came into existence in 1996. NJEA has found that high turnover rates and management opposition make organizing and maintaining members in charter schools difficult.
“We are now looking at new approaches to organizing that build on the strength and stability of our established locals in traditional school districts to bring the advantages of union representation to more employees in rapidly growing charter school sector,” explains NJEA President Barbara Keshishian. “We can never stop working to strengthen and improve all of our public schools, and in New Jersey, charter schools are public schools.”
The challenges to organizing charters are formidable, but the National Education Association and its affiliates are ramping up organizing drives across the country. While the movement is still nascent, expect to hear more success stories like Ivy Academy, says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.
“We’re all accountable for student success and children who attend charter schools deserve a quality education,” Van Roekel explains. “It doesn’t matter if they attend traditional public schools or a charter. Students benefit from teachers who have a voice and it’s up to all of us to work together to strengthen that voice and set the stage for the high standards and responsibility that go along with that.”
CHARTER SCHOOLS— GOT ACCOUNTABILITY?
Charter schools are here to stay. Throughout their two- decade history, their growth has been steady. Today, roughly 5,700 charter schools are scattered across the U.S. Although they make up only 5 percent of the total number of U.S. schools, their history of growth indicates the number will continue to grow. Student enrollment has quadrupled since 1990 to more than 2 million students. In 2011-2102, 538 new charter schools opened up and student enrollment grew by 12.4 percent.
According to comments made by President Obama during this year’s National Charter School Week, “These learning laboratories give educators the chance to try new models and methods that can encourage excellence in the classroom and prepare more of our children for college and careers.”
With such an endorsement, it’s not hard to imagine charter schools’ most avid supporters nodding their heads in agreement.
But here’s what Obama said next: “In return for this flexibility, we should expect high standards and accountability, and make tough decisions to close charter schools that are underperforming and not improving.”
But the sad truth is that to many members of the charter school “movement,” education reform—good schools, high- achieving students—begins and ends with charters, period.
“There’s definitely a disconnect between what the well- oiled charter PR machine is championing and what is actually happening in the charter sector,” explains Bob Tate, NEA senior policy analyst. “Questions over accountability only scratch the surface.”
Heightened scrutiny over the past few years has revealed that too many charter schools across the country are not only underperforming, but are facing issues concerning discipline policies, underserving students with disabilities—especially those with severe disabilities and English language learners—financial waste and improprieties, and apparently high student and teacher attrition. In short, the free ride many charter operators have gotten may be over. Although, Tate adds, even in the face of greater public awareness, lawmakers continue to move forward with policies that do not address key quality and accountability issues.
Bruce Baker, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, counts himself as someone who supports the idea of charter schools but believes the movement has “gotten way out of control.”
“In my view, many charter schools, and certainly the political movement of charter schooling, are no longer operating in the public interest,” Baker recently wrote. “We’ve shifted dramatically and rather quickly from what some might refer to as a portfolio model, to what I would now characterize as a parasitic one.”
It’s a model that often uses charters as a club to pummel the public school system and limit teacher rights. Lost amidst the divisive political battles is how the nation can learn from charter schools that truly are effective and accountable learning communities.
‘IT WAS TIME TO GET ORGANIZED’
High standards are not a problem at Ivy Academia, says Katrina Daneshmand, and it’s the staff who keep them there.
“We are responsible for an additional set of standards that holds us above a normal public school,” she says. “At Ivy Academia, not only do we teach the California Standards, we teach the Entrepreneur Standards, using depth and complexity icons and essential questions as well as incorporating Common Core Standards this year.”
Ivy Academia’s mission is to prepare its K-12th grade students with the academic and entrepreneurial skills necessary to succeed in the 21st Century. The teachers infuse business applications in practically every lesson they put in front of the students, and students leave knowing how all of the core subjects apply to business and success in the economic environment. It’s the kind of curriculum that attracts teachers to the school and compels them to protect it.
In recent years, Tom Kuhny and others noticed the school’s administration was beginning to shift slightly away from the entrepreneurial focus that they thought was so essential to the school’s mission and success. Teachers were also growing restless over a series of top- down decisions that were affecting their work in the classroom. As at-will employees, staff at Ivy weren’t empowered to advocate for their students.
“It got to the point that we decided that for the benefit of the kids, for the benefit of the educational system we run here, for the entrepreneurial program, we just felt it was time to get organized and find a collective voice,” Kuhny says. “We knew it would allow us to move forward and be innovative.”
Ivy’s organizing campaign began in September 2012 with a few teachers reaching out to colleagues and strengthening communication between the staffs at the three campuses. “One of our biggest challenges was finding time to meet with all of our staff since we all have different prep times and with no empty rooms,” Katrina Daneshmand says.
Parent support for bringing the union into Ivy was strong. “There’s always that word, right? Union.” says Kuhny. “To some parents, it means nothing but tenure and never being able to fire bad teachers. Even when you explain the notion of due process, you’re not going to change the minds of those who have that idea so ingrained in their minds, but we didn’t really need to.”
The petition requesting representation by UTLA was signed by teachers in Decem- ber, and approved by the administration two months later. As bargaining got under way in May, teachers at Ivy wanted a system at the school that would enable them to have an ongoing voice to advocate for their students’ interests.
As more educators fight to win this voice, many politicians will find it harder and harder to ignore their leadership and expertise, says Dennis Van Roekel.
“NEA will continue to work to help correct problems in the charter sector, but educators everywhere need to speak with a unified voice on the many challenges facing our students. We’re at a tipping point now, and a divided teaching force— between those who work in charters and those who work in traditional public schools—is not acceptable.”