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Why, and Where, Charter School Teachers Unionize

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Efforts to unionize teachers in charter schools are picking up in a handful of states and counter efforts by school administrators to tamp them down often backfire, according to a study by the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Those trends are among several issues the study explores on unionizing efforts in charter schools, a topic that has generated national headlines recently but one we still don't know a lot about.

Charter unionization drives and strikes by charter school teachers—such as those recently seen in Chicago and Los Angeles—capture media attention, but they are nowhere near the norm. Only 11.3 percent of charter schools have unionized staff. That's down by 1 percent from 10 years ago. 

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The vast majority of charter schools are not unionized because state laws exempt charters from a lot of rules, including, in most states, collective bargaining contracts. But while charter schools are not required to be unionized, they're not prohibited, either. 

National figures, though, can gloss over the realities in different states. Charter unions have expanded in states that already have a strong union presence, such as Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. 

They have declined in states such as Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and Oregon.

While the majority of unionized charters—54 percent—are so because they are required to be under state law, most new unionization efforts are because schools have voluntarily chosen to organize.


EdWeek Explains: What Are Charter Schools?


Why Teachers in Charter Schools Join Unions

When charter school teachers choose to organize, it is usually because teachers have lost trust in administrators and want more say in how schools are run, CRPE found from a small sample of interviews with teachers and administrators at charters that recently unionized or were undergoing the process.

More specifically, teachers cited high turnover rates, pay, organizational instability, and school growth as contributing factors.

Additional bureaucracy from growth, such as a single-site charter school expanding with new campuses, left teachers in some cases feeling as though they had lost their voice and contributed to the decision to organize. Teachers' concerns were only exacerbated when administrators launched campaigns, often with the help of outside groups, to convince teachers to abandon their unionization efforts. These campaigns usually had the reverse affect.

Several teachers CRPE spoke with said they opposed tenure protections and did not try to include it in their contracts, which in some cases put them at odds with local union officials helping them to organize.

While unionizing does increase the say teachers have in their schools' operations, it did not, however, resolve the trust issues, the report found.

What Types of Charter Schools Unionize?

Eighty percent of unionized charter schools are independent from a larger network. However, unions have been growing within nonprofit and for-profit charter operators. The number of unionized charters affiliated with management groups has doubled since 2009—mostly through teachers choosing to organize.

Charter schools with unionized teachers in general serve fewer low-income students and have lower teacher-to-student ratios compared to non-unionized charters, according to federal data analyzed by CRPE for the report.

However, charters where the staff voluntarily organized—versus the school launching with a collective bargaining agreement or state law requiring it—served more disadvantaged students and had larger teaching staffs.

Collective bargaining agreements for charter schools and those for traditional public schools also have some key differences, the study found. Charter contracts tended to allow for more flexibility in how teachers are evaluated, disciplined, and dismissed.

Achievement in Unionized Charter Schools

Do students perform better academically in charters operating under a collective bargaining agreement? The researchers at CRPE took a stab at answering this question, although the study's authors say their analysis is limited. But when looking at how students fared on state English language arts assessments, students at unionized charter schools did slightly better overall than their peers at non-unionized charters. Academic growth was slightly higher among non-unionized charters. However, in both cases the differences were not statistically significant.

Students in charters where teachers chose to organize did better than their counterparts in nonunionized charters overall.

The full study can be found here: An Unlikely Bargain: Why Charter Schools Choose to Organize and What Happens When They Do.

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