In April, hundreds of teachers in one of the nation’s largest online charter schools will vote to ratify their first union contract, which goes a long way to providing the digital environment that students need to learn.
For years, teachers in California Virtual Academies (CAVA) have complained of near-impossible workloads, last-minute teaching assignments, and poor pay. The tentative contract agreement, which was negotiated over a period of more than two years and finally was settled after union members threatened a virtual strike or “log out,” provides workload caps that will enable CAVA’s approximately 500 teachers to invest more individualized attention in their students and pay raises that will make it easier for CAVA’s teachers to stay in their jobs.
“Our goal has always been teacher and student success,” says Brianna Carroll, CAVA teacher and California Virtual Educators United (CVEU) president. “To be honest, teachers are people who don’t always advocate for themselves, but we will advocate for our students and that’s what this has been about.”
Established more than a decade ago, CAVA is a network of nine charter schools across California that have served as many as 15,000 students annually. It’s affiliated with K12 Inc., a for-profit, publicly traded company that was penalized $168.5 million by the state in 2016 for allegations that it published misleading advertisements about CAVA students’ academic progress, parent satisfaction, class sizes, and quality of instructional materials.
In 2015, a report from In The Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, called out CAVA for its 58 percent graduation rate. It also pointed out that while K12 Inc. paid almost $11 million to its top six executives in 2012, the average CAVA teacher earned $36,150—or about half of the average teacher salary in California.
The lack of support for teachers and students spurred CAVA teachers in 2013 to unionize. They wanted a voice in the way the schools operated, and to insure that their working environments would support student learning, they said.
What CAVA teachers have seen concerns them: “Teachers have been notified literally three days before school starts what classes they’ll be teaching—and then expected to set up the whole semester’s calendar in those three days. You can’t do the thoughtful and creative planning that you want to do, and it’s not beneficial for students,” says Carroll.
They’ve also watched as virtual homerooms that are supposed to be capped at 30 grows to 35 or 40 students, or as a new class in a different grade—or even two new classes in two different grades— are suddenly added to their workloads. They have also seen a lack of instructional materials, and a frequent tendency to assign administrative tasks to teachers.
With administrators ignoring their concerns, too many CAVA teachers have been forced to throw up their hands in frustration, or leave CAVA to earn a living wage in more stable workplaces. “We have to be able to retain great teachers,” says Carroll.
The new contract will provide a way for teachers to shape curriculum and school policies, and also will protect those who want to voice their concerns. It includes grievance procedures; measures to provide “permanent status” to teachers after two years of satisfactory performance; caps on the number of students assigned to each teacher; and pay raises that will bring average annual salaries to around $45,000, still below the state average but better.