Collective bargaining with charter schools, though said to be more flexible and innovative than that with traditional public schools, offers too few advantages to outweigh the restrictions it creates, says a recent study.
Currently, teachers in about 12 percent of charter schools have formed unions to negotiate wages, salaries, and work conditions through collective bargaining.
Describing traditional union contracts as “getting larger and more unwieldy,” report author Mitch Price studied whether charters could offer streamlined collective bargaining agreements. He examined nine charter schools with unions and compared their data to that of traditional public schools. Although some charter agreements had creative and unique attributes, the majority mirrored traditional union contracts, Price found.
Price is a legal analyst for the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Charter leaders prompted the December report, citing concerns about unionization upsetting charter school autonomy and creating a more restrictive, less pioneering environment.
“Teachers and students in charter schools have a very close and well-integrated relationship where teachers share power regularly and are closely involved in important decisions,” said Terry Moe, a Hoover Institution senior fellow. “Collective bargaining contracts are designed to promote the occupational interest of teachers by restricting what managers can do, and therefore [the system] becomes more formal and bureaucratic. The best schools are informal, flexible, cooperative, and interactive.”
Charter Union Innovations
In the report, “Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain?” Price found labor grievances are often processed more quickly at unionized charter schools than in traditional public schools. Two of the nine charter schools studied did so in less than 50 days.
“Innovation and experimentation can still occur, but only after dealing with the provisions of the contract,” said Mike Antonucci, an Education Intelligence Agency specialist. “It won’t happen on a wholesale level until we have many more charter schools.”
Nearly 80 percent of the charter schools Price studied considered performance evaluations when laying off employees, compared to just 25 percent of traditional contracts.
The charter unions directly involved teachers in schools’ organizational decisions and offered broader and more informal resolution processes.
“All but one of the charter school contracts require at least eight-hour workdays, and unspecified ‘professional hours’ are typical, whereas 82 percent of district contracts limit the workday to less than eight hours,” the report noted. Charter contracts tend to have more flexible workdays and school years six days longer than traditional contracts.
“Most charter school contracts involve the employees at a single school, while most traditional public school contracts involve many employees at many schools,” Antonucci said. “If every charter school in a state had to operate under a common contract, there wouldn't be much room for blanket application of progressive contract language.”
According to the report, 44 percent of traditional public schools converted to charters are unionized, but only 9 percent of “start-ups” are.
“Conversion schools often maintain the contracts they already had as traditional public schools,” Price said. “Some charter schools are required by federal law to have collective bargaining, some are designed to have them, and others, teachers voted.”
Price found most teacher-voted charter unions had negative origins.
“It was often there was some kind of loss of trust between the management and the teachers,” Price said. “It seemed [unionization] was a reaction to that.”
In other cases, new charters wanted a more systematic teacher evaluation system or to formalize teachers’ role in decision-making.
However, Price noted, “You don’t need a collective bargaining agreement to do that.”
Green Dot Forerunner
States, charter authorizers, teachers, and charter operator Green Dot Public Schools are all factors in charter school unionization.
“Green Dot sought to circumvent union opposition to charters by embracing unionization in its schools,” Antonucci said. “If it works for Green Dot, more power to Green Dot, but if all charter schools followed suit they would soon be indistinguishable from traditional public schools.”
Green Dot operates 17 charter high schools in Los Angeles and has created its own collective bargaining agreement.
“This is collective bargaining with none of the trappings,” Moe said. “They adopted a collective bargaining agreement that is 30 pages long, while most are 200. The teachers didn’t even have tenure.”
Seeking a Foothold
Nonethless, labor deals between unions and charter schools tend to resemble traditional collective bargaining agreements. Price found this was more common among conversion schools than charter start-ups.
“A lot of people from the unions are coming from the traditional public school system and are bringing that mindset and that template,” Price said.
Charter school unions start off minimalist because unions are seeking a foothold in the charter sector, Moe said. Unions are not integral to charter schools, as charters are designed to function outside of traditional restrictions, he said.
“If charter school unions are affiliated with the [National Education Association] and [American Federation of Teachers], they already are traditional public school unions,” Antonucci said. “If their collective bargaining agreements look different, it's because charters are different, not because the unions are.”
“The unionization of charter schools is a bad idea,” Moe said. “It can only lead to greater formalization and greater rigidity in the organizations and more adversarial relations between administrators and teachers. There’s nothing that positive they can accomplish that they can’t accomplish informally.”
“Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain?” Mitch Price, December 2011: http://www.crpe.org/cs/crpe/download/csr_files/CRPE_pub_Unions_Nov11-2.pdf 
Image by BarbaraLN .