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Unions Eye L.A. Charter Schools

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Efforts to organize teachers in the country’s largest system could have nationwide repercussions

By Kris Maher
Wall Street Journal
Nov. 16, 2015

As teachers unions ramp up efforts to organize the fast-growing charter school movement, one of the biggest and most contentious fights is taking place at a chain of schools in Los Angeles.

In March, 70 teachers at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, the city’s largest charter system with 26 schools and more than 600 teachers, announced they wanted to join United Teachers Los Angeles, the 31,000-member union that represents all of the city’s public school teachers and about 1,000 teachers at 12 independent charter schools.

Alliance officials counter that being free of union rules has helped their charter schools operate with greater flexibility and smaller class sizes and ultimately send 95% of graduates to college each year. They also question why a union fighting the expansion of charter schools wants to organize charter teachers.

“They spent the last 10 years saying how terrible charters are when we’ve been trying to educate poor kids and have been doing a great job at it,” said Catherine Suitor, a spokeswoman for Alliance. “What is it they’re trying to fix?”

The unionization campaign, currently the largest at a U.S. charter school system, could have wide repercussions A union win could validate a new wave of organizing drives at charter schools in Colorado, Michigan, Ohio and other states. A protracted campaign that doesn’t go anywhere would be a costly and demoralizing defeat for unions.

The Los Angeles union, which is affiliated with the nation’s two biggest teachers unions—the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—has so far not said whether it wants to organize the teachers through an election or an alternative process.

A quarter of the Alliance teachers have signed a public letter supporting the union and asking the charter system to remain neutral.

Tensions have grown in recent weeks amid charges from teachers that administrators have illegally intimidated them, which Alliance denies.

On Oct. 29, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted a temporary restraining order sought by the union, and ordered Alliance administrators to stay 100 feet away from union organizers and not coerce or threaten teachers for participating in union organizing. The court also ordered Alliance to allow the union on school property after work hours and said it couldn’t block union emails to teachers’ work addresses.

“The charter industry should want accountability,” said Randi Weingarten, AFT’s president. “The bottom line is we want charter schools to have the same accountability and transparency as neighborhood public schools.”

Pro-union Alliance teachers say they want job security and input into the curriculum and other decisions now handed down by administrators and a board that includes Antony Ressler, a billionaire who bought the Atlanta Hawks earlier this year, and Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles.

Alliance’s pay scale is based on performance and teachers can and do earn more earlier in their careers than public school teachers, Ms. Suitor said. The Los Angeles union contends the pay is comparable to the $50,000 to $80,000 that teachers earn on average at the city’s public schools.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, represent a threat as well as an opportunity to unions, as their growth booms and membership at many unions declines.

Today, unions represent just 7% of the nation’s charter schools, the first of which was launched more than 20 years ago as an alternative to traditional public schools. There were about 6,500 charter schools in the U.S. in the 2013-2014 school year, more than twice as many as in 2004-2005.

About 68% of public school teachers and 31% of private school teachers belonged to unions in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Several states, including Maryland, Hawaii and Alaska, require charter schools to be unionized, but many charter school proponents oppose unions, arguing they hinder the schools’ missions to innovate and bring a higher degree of flexibility to education, including being able to fire underperforming teachers.

Los Angeles already has more than 100,000 students attending charter schools, the most of any city in the nation. Charter school supporters in Los Angeles want to boost the percentage of students in the city who attend charters to 50% from 16% currently.

The UTLA opposes those plans, which some charter school proponents believe will make it tough for the union to organize teachers in charters.

“It’s not surprising that teachers that work at charter schools would not want to join a union,” said Alison Zgainer, executive vice president of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization in Washington, D.C. “They want more autonomy in the classroom, and being part of a union you lose that autonomy.”

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