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Teachers' Unions Are Making Gains in Charter School Networks. What's Behind the Trend?

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Two of the biggest adversaries in education politics are teachers' unions and the charter school establishment.

Charters, after all, were set up, in part, to free schools from many state and district regulations—including collective bargaining contracts. And unions see the rapid expansion of non-unionized charter schools in some cities as a threat to their existence.

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But that doesn't mean that charter schools can't be unionized, and some of them are. For example, the teachers at one of the most prominent charter networks in California, Green Dot Public Schools, have always been unionized. More recently, teachers unions have notched a couple of highly-publicized wins recently in places such as Chicago, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia.

Beyond those anecdotes, however, the overall number of unionized charter schools as a percentage nationally has dropped slightly—from 12.3 percent to 11.3 percent—since 2010, according to new data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But that's not to say teachers' unions are not making new inroads into the charter sector. Within the world of unionized charter schools, a much larger share is now affiliated with a charter school network.

A Growing Trend?

In 2010, less than 10 percent of unionized charter schools belonged to either a nonprofit charter management organization or a for-profit education management organization. Today, that number is pushing 20 percent.

Why the uptick? It likely comes down to strategy.

"One reason that it might be that CMOs or EMOs are more likely to be unionized is is that they are easier targets from a unionization perspective," said Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. "It makes more sense for them to spend their energy going to a place where they can get more teachers and more schools. It's actually a lot of work to try to go in and unionize a set of teachers."

In addition to the fact that a union gets more bang for their buck if they organize the staff in an entire network of charter schools versus a single, independent school, it's also a bigger symbolic victory, said Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy for the National Alliance.

And there are ways that networks can make themselves a bigger target, he said.

"If schools and networks haven't been careful and thoughtful about ensuring that teachers have a voice, whether it's one school or 10 schools ... then they do run a greater risk of being unionized," he said. "That's something these networks have to really prioritize if they want to stay union-free as they grow."

What About Janus?

Whatever trends in charter unionization we're seeing now could be completely scrambled by the U.S. Supreme Court's forthcoming decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31.

If the High Court rules that it's unconstitutional for public employee unions to charge fees to workers who choose not to join the union, that could significantly affect the unions' appetites for organizing charter teachers.

But in what way is less clear.

I asked both Strunk and Ziebarth how a ruling against the unions could affect organizing efforts in charter schools. Both said it could go either way.

With less money and fewer resources, teachers' unions may pull back their efforts to organize charter schools. While charters make up a sizable proportion of schools in some major cities, nationally, they account for less than 10 percent of all public schools.

Or the reverse could be true: in search of new dues-paying members, teachers' unions may double down on charters—especially those that belong to the large networks.

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