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Collective Bargaining in Charter Schools

I bet you never thought you would see the words collective bargaining and charter schools in the same headline, but a new study came out this week from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) located at the University of Washington. The study is titled, "Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain?" Mitch Price, legal analyst for CRPE, is the author with a forward from Robin J. Lake. It is worth the read.

The study looked at collective bargaining agreements from 10 charter schools. Yes, there is collective bargaining at some charter schools. The study indicated that as of 2009-10, 604 of the 4,315 charter schools have collective bargaining. That is about 12% of all charter schools. The National Education Association represents 76% of those schools, and the American Federation of Teachers represents 11%. The remaining 13% are shared through merger of the two unions.

For me, the highlight of the study focused on the alignment of charter schools' collective bargaining agreements with their instructional programs. In the Green Dot Public Schools agreement, it mentions specifically that the union will have representation in the design of all curricula and curricular materials. Class size is specifically addressed. My favorite part of this specific contract is "...must maintain fluid communication and a willingness to work out issues and concerns with students' interests at the basis of each decision." Now that is 21st Century bargaining---bargaining focused on the students first.

The study praises charter school agreements for expedited grievance processing, especially disciplinary actions. I have always maintained that management's main issues have been time and cost while the union's main interest has been fairness. I do find it encouraging that some charter schools give "just cause" to all teachers, both probationary and career. They skip all the bureaucratic processes that others have designed for so-called "tenure." I contend "just cause" should be the standard for fairness in any cases involving dismissal of employees.

One conclusion of the report that needs to be discussed is whether state laws, that require charter schools to adhere to the district's collective bargaining agreement, undermine alignment of the contract with the mission of the school. I am sure those state laws were developed as a means of winning enough votes to get the legislation passed as well as to protect employees. In 21st Century bargaining, all school sites could have more customized provisions allowed by law. I suspect there is compromise language that could benefit all schools.

To my charter school friends, read this report. Collective bargaining can be a great tactic to ensure student and teacher success. The process empowers you and your colleagues and creates institutional communication. Administrators, trust your staff to serve the best interests of their students and to formalize those commitments. The charge to all of you is to experiment with educational practices to improve teaching and learning. Let's do that with collective bargaining by experimenting with agreements at every charter school.

To my union friends, read these 10 contracts and the report. Adopt and adapt provisions that drive 21st Century bargaining that is student-centered. Have conversations with policy-makers to highlight how charter schools have incubated new bargaining strategies that might enhance all schools if they were available to all. Open yourselves to better ways to work in collaboration and in service to students.

Thanks to CPRE for exposing us to the status of collective bargaining in charter schools. The fears expressed by some in this report should be set aside to foster collaboration. Unions and management have too much at stake not to make bargaining positive, progressive, and in service to the students they serve. Say yes to charter school unions as a good bargain for all students.

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