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After Threatened Walkout, Teachers Win Contract at Online Charter School

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Inspired by walkouts in West Virginia and Oklahoma, teachers in California's largest online charter school were prepared to strike if their new union could not reach an agreement with their school's management.

But California Virtual Academies, which includes nine schools and contracts with K12 Inc., the biggest for-profit charter school operator in the country, and the fledgling union of California Virtual Educators Unitedhave settled on their first contract, union representatives announced Wednesday. Among the teacher demands the school has agreed to: some limits on the number of students they oversee, more flexibility in interacting with students and parents, and a whopping 17.8 percent increase in pay.

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

Those first two items are important because online charter schools often struggle with student engagement in a totally virtual setting with high teacher-to-student ratios.

On that last item, the president of California Virtual Educators United, which is affiliated with the California Teachers Association, said the pay increase will bring teachers at California Virtual Academies, or CAVA, in line with what educators make at other charter schools.

"We see a lot of money is going to K12 Inc. for their management and their curriculum, but our school doesn't pay any money for a building, for heating, or a janitor," said Brianna Carroll, the CVEU president and a social science teacher. "We want more money for student resources and for recruiting and retaining good teachers."

The agreement still has to be ratified by the union's nearly 500 teachers to be finalized.

So, how does a walkout work at a virtual school?

"It's rather complicated," Carroll said.

She and her fellow teachers had planned to strike with something more like a "logout" than a traditional walkout, by simply not signing into the learning systems to teach class or tutor students. They had planned to call parents directly to explain what was happening, and then to picket in front of CAVA's headquarters in Simi Valley.

Charter School Unions are Rare

As a unionized staff, CAVA teachers belong to a small club within the charter sector. Only 11 percent of charter schools are unionized nationally, down slightly from 12 percent in 2010, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Charter schools make up about 7 percent of the nation's public schools. About 70 percent of all teachers nationwide participate in unions or employee associations, according to the U.S. Department of Education.  

But some of the most high-profile charter organizing efforts of late have taken place in California. In addition to CAVA, there's an ongoing effort led by the United Teachers Los Angeles to try to organize teachers at the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools network, which includes nearly 30 schools.

Getting charter school teachers to unionize has been a strategic focus for the California Teachers Association, the National Education Association's largest state affiliate, since 2014. California is also home to one of the largest charter school networks in the country, Green Dot Public Schools charter network, which has been unionized since its inception.

Investigations into CAVA, K12 Inc., and Online Charter Schools 

CAVA has been in the news lately for more than its teachers' unionizing efforts.

K12 Inc.'s financial arrangements with the schools it helps run in California were the subject of an investigation by the East Bay Times. The paper found that the schools had little independence from K12 Inc. and that the Herndon, Va.-based management company charged fees for its service that were at times far in excess of what the schools could afford. Teachers employed by K12 Inc. were pressured to inflate student enrollment and attendance numbers, which help determine state funding. The paper also reported that half of the schools' students were proficient in reading and only a third were proficient math. Many students that enrolled in K12 Inc. did not graduate.

K12 Inc. reached an $8.5 million settlement with the California Attorney General in 2016 over allegations that the company misled parents about how well students were doing in the California schools it manages. The company did not:admit to any wrongdoing.

K12 Inc. and online or cyber charters in general have been under increasing scrutiny both in California and beyond. That's been driven in part by the ascent of Betsy DeVos to U.S. Education Secretary. DeVos is a supporter of online schools—touting them as a means to bring school choice to rural areas—and an early investor in K12 Inc.

The issues raised in California are not confined to that state or to K12 Inc.: Full-time online schools (both charter and district) run by for-profit companies have long been plagued with management and academic problems, according to a 2016 Education Week investigation. (To read K12 Inc.'s response to Education Week's investigation, click here.)

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