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Mismanagement, Fraud and Worker Abuse at Charter Schools Are Driving School Staff to Unionize

Job security, salary, benefits and hours are catalysts.

Unionized teachers with ASPIRA charter school network rally outside an ASPIRA high school to convince the company's management to come to terms on a contract on March 9, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Nearly 30 years ago, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Albert Shanker gave a speech at the National Press Club in which he outlined his pedagogical ideal: Small, independently managed schools that championed innovation and served as “educational laboratories.” He called them charter schools. As Shanker envisioned it, unionized charters would test a variety of classroom techniques and strategies; those that worked would then be replicated in schools throughout the country.

By 1991 the first charter was up and running in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the 26 years since then, the number of charters has mushroomed: by August 2017, 43 states and Washington, DC, had enrolled more than 3 million K-12 students in approximately 6,750 online and brick-and-mortar programs — a full 8 percent of school-aged kids.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools anticipates that this trend will continue, projecting that 4 million children — 10 percent of the total — will be enrolled in charters by 2020. And as is obvious, the majority of these programs are nothing like the model that Shanker envisioned: Almost none are teacher-run, independently managed or innovative. Worse, only between 10 and 12 percent are unionized.

How did this happen? As the AFT website notes, “Some leaders in the corporate education reform movement have hijacked much of the charter school industry both to profit from and undermine public education.” Indeed. In addition, the charter movement has gotten a huge financial boost from the Bill and Melinda Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, promoters of what has been dubbed “school choice.” What’s more, they have a close friend in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose budget request for the next fiscal year includes a whopping $168 million increase in charter school funding — a 50 percent hike from current levels — at a time when public schools expect a federal funding decrease of 14 percent.

The Pro-Charter Sales Pitch

Charter school supporters consistently sell the concept of flexibility — crowing that charters allow teachers to design and implement curricula as they see fit. They further state that charters give administrators the “freedom” to sidestep union rules on employment conditions, including job security, salaries, benefits and hours.

“The citizens of the US deserve freedom and access and input” into educational policy, the conservative Center for Education Reform argues. “Only by achieving that will we restore excellence to education, maximizing everyone’s potential success, regardless of the circumstances into which they were born.”

Critics, of course, point to research showing that charter school students do no better than students attending traditional public schools on standardized tests or other supposed measures of academic achievement, and note that charters are often cauldrons of administrative mismanagement and racial segregation.

Nonetheless, virtually everyone agrees that charters are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. While many groups, including the NAACP and the National Education Association (NEA), want limits on the growth of for-profit charters — if not an outright moratorium on additional such programs — they see unionization as the best way to ensure managerial accountability, decent working conditions and adequate support for student learning.

Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the Bad Ass Teachers Association (BATS), says that BATS members were initially concerned that supporting unionization drives at charters might legitimize them, but ultimately decided to support collective bargaining efforts. “We concluded,” she told Truthout, “that unions will make charters more transparent and allow teachers to set working conditions that are better for them and better for the kids they teach. It is also a way to defeat what market-based education advocates want — profits. Unions force charter administrators to pay teachers decently and give them due process rights. It makes the bosses accountable.”

Richard Berg, an organizer at the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), agrees, noting that just because an institution is part of an exploitative system does not mean unions should avoid organizing its employees — in fact, the opposite is true.

“It’s comparable to how we see Walmart,” Berg explains. “The labor movement is very critical of Walmart and how it operates, but when it comes to those who work in the stores, we believe they deserve full rights on the job, including better salaries and benefits.”

Chicago Leads the Way

Chicago is the national leader in charter school unionization: More than 25 percent of charter employees are members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. This amounts to more than 1,000 individuals in 32 schools; still, 89 charters in the city remain unorganized.

Berg expects the upcoming academic year to be particularly exciting. “I work primarily in charters that are already organized,” he said. “We consciously lined up 9 of 10 contracts so that they expire before the 2018-19 year begins. We’re doing salary comparisons with the Chicago public schools now to try and push for a reasonable standard to bargain for.”

Other anticipated bargaining points will include the length of the school day and school year. According to Berg, teachers at charters typically work one to three hours more per day than public school teachers and four to five days more per year — for less pay. These factors contribute to an enormous turnover rate at charters — in some cases nearly double that of traditional public schools — not just in Chicago, but throughout the country.

Then there’s the issue of financial accountability. “Charters don’t have the same reporting requirements,” Berg said. “A lot of money tends to go toward student recruitment, program expansion and advertising. Many charter operators prioritize growth over taking care of the kids who are already enrolled. Teachers constantly complain about a lack of resources, from copiers that don’t work to a lack of supplies.”

At the crux of this issue is profiteering: Many charters are run by for-profit entities eager to make a quick buck off the backs of students. In one particularly egregious example, Berg reports that the CEO of one Chicago charter was paid a salary equal to that of the CEO of the Chicago Board of Education. “One person runs 700 schools and one runs one, but they make the same salary,” he said. “That really opened people’s eyes. Even when a charter purports to be not-for-profit, we’ve found that individuals sometimes still benefit. CTU’s research addresses how money goes in and out of a school. We’ve also dug into charter claims about innovation and unique learning environments and found them to be BS. We shine a light on this for the public as well as for our members.”

In the long term, Berg said, CTU’s goal is to bring public resources back to public school classrooms.

New York City Unions Take on Charters

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the New York City arm of the American Federation of Teachers, has a similar goal to CTU. “We’ve organized more than 25 schools in the city, which is about 10 percent of the total,” Miles Trager, the UFT’s coordinator of services and negotiations told me. “Most charters don’t offer staff great benefits. People usually have to contribute a lot for health care and there are very meager pensions. Charters are not set up for people to make a career in one school. There is also a ton of mismanagement.”

Trager attributes these problems to the fact that many charter administrators know very little about education. “Some charters hire managers who seem to have found their educational vision on the internet. In New York you don’t need to be licensed or certified to be a charter school supervisor. It’s a set up for disaster,” he said.

However, Trager maintains that the UFT is not anti-charter. After all, he continues, the idea for charters actually came from the UFT’s parent union.

“Our critique of charters doesn’t conclude that they’re wholly bad,” he said. “Our critique focuses on the bad actors and the people who operate in bad faith. The idea that teachers could create their own schools has been co-opted by business interests. They need some form of oversight.”

One of those bad actors, Trager said, is the management of the Charter High School for Law and Social Justice in the Bronx, where 70 percent of the bargaining unit and the entire negotiating committee were fired in June 2017, a year after staff voted to join the UFT. The dismissals are currently being adjudicated by the National Labor Relations Board. Meanwhile, the school has hired new teachers and is now in its third year of operation.

Sadly, this situation is not anomalous. In fact, numerous charters in Detroit and elsewhere have shut down or fired staff after management found out that folks were organizing.

But even beyond these tyrannical management responses to unionization drives, many charters have a terrible track record when it comes to longevity. According to the NEA, 21 percent of charters that opened in 2000 were closed five years later; 33 percent were shuttered by 2010. The reasons for this vary, but include fiscal mismanagement — with some sponsors taking the money and literally running — or the realization that it is far harder to run a school than the sponsor originally anticipated.

Community Outreach Is Essential

Secky Fascione, the director of local growth and strategic initiatives at the NEA, says her union’s impetus for charter school organizing comes largely from parents, especially those whose children need support services due to learning difficulties or disabilities — needs that may be going unmet. “Sometimes the charter is the only school available in their neighborhood and sometimes the parents believed the hype that charters will offer something better, but once their children enroll, they become concerned,” she said. “These parents are aware that in a regular public school there is ongoing professional development for teachers and resources are dedicated to an actual physical space and materials for special needs students. They also worry about whether channels are in place for them to voice their concerns.”

Like other unions, the NEA puts these concerns into the context of school privatization. “Folks who operate in a space where profit is the goal stand in contrast to our members who simply want their children to be successful in school,” Fascione said. “Our job is to stop the commodification of education and the growth of for-profit charters.”

Fascione cites two recent victories. In Georgia, a 2016 initiative to remove local control from schools deemed “failing” so that they could be handed over to for-profit charters was rejected by voters. Similarly, Massachusetts voters rejected a 2016 measure to lift the cap on development of new charters. Fascione credits the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools — a coalition of educators, parents, student activists, unions, religious leaders and progressives — with turning the tide on these initiatives and insists that broad networks are necessary to reverse the business model that currently holds sway in Washington and in far too many statehouses.

Despite such wins, organizers acknowledge that restoring support for public schools will not be easy. But thanks to many well-publicized scandals at charter schools, public support for them is diminishing. A survey conducted earlier this year found just 39 percent of people favoring charters, down from 51 percent a year earlier.

Here’s one reason why: Center for Popular Democracy’s researchers report that the financial impact of charter school “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” has cost state, local and federal government $223 million since 2014. Wrongdoings include a California charter school director who spent $1 million in federal funds on personal real estate ventures; a New Mexico administrator who doctored receipts to cover up payment for cleaning services at her home; and a Minnesota charter that inflated enrollment numbers to collect $608,000 for students who’d never attended the program. And that’s just a smattering of the abuses.

Suspicion of financial improprieties is what led staff at Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School to unionize. Former Olney English teacher Ben Finkelstein reports that as soon as faculty began to suspect that ASPIRA, the school’s sponsor, had misused funds, they began to seek redress. “Teachers thought that if they had more say, the school would have a better chance of success,” he wrote in an email. In addition, management’s initial antagonism toward a union gave teachers the push they needed to organize. “It emboldened us,” he said.

This emboldening is happening at charters across the US. Already, organizing victories have been won in Los Angeles; Washington, DC; New York City and Cincinnati, to name just a few. It has also provoked increased skepticism among parents and community members who previously thought of charters as a viable — if not superior — alternative to a traditional public school education.

For their part, teachers’ unions are cautiously optimistic that charter staff will see collective bargaining as their best hope for ensuring job security, decent salaries and improved working conditions.

“A lot of teachers heard the propaganda that if you want to be a social justice warrior in the field of education you needed to go to a charter,” the UFT’s Miles Trager said. “But then they got there and saw problems, big problems. We want those people to give the union a call.”

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