Charter Schools are Redefining Union Contracts

May 18, 2009

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Teacher Joyce Pae hopes a union will give teachers more of a say in how the Chicago International Charter School's Ralph Ellison campus is run. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Teachers at three Chicago charter schools are on a course to become the first unionized charter teachers in the city. They still have legal hurdles to overcome. But if they get to negotiate a contract, it's likely to look dramatically different than traditional teacher union contracts. 

Blog: Does Chicago Have Its First Unionized Charter School…Or Not?

Related: Audio from a Chicago Teachers Union rally in support of unionizing charter school teachers from 4/15/09:  

Chicago International Charter School teachers address the rally
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers President
Teachers Sing “Solidarity Forever”

A union started sounding good to Eric Levy about a year ago. That's when he and other teachers at Chicago International Charter School's Northtown campus were told they'd be teaching an additional class.

LEVY: We were just presented with that. There was no salary increase or anything like that, it was just like, “Hey, you're teaching six classes now.” Class size has slowly crept up, too. So it's six BIG classes. My biggest class has 33 students.
 
ambi: students outside Ellison at dismissal

Meanwhile, at the school's South Side Ralph Ellison campus teacher Joyce Pae began to think that maybe a union could do something for high teacher turnover there.

PAE: The teachers we have, they're so dedicated, so it's a great place to work in that sense. But I also think that they burn out so quickly when they feel like they're not being supported and valued. And that's what I'm hoping this union will do.

Ninety-one of the schools' teachers signed union cards and turned them into the state last month. Now they're fighting to get their employer to recognize the union.

Most charter school leaders prize their freedom from unions and say that lets them innovate. And many charter school teachers agree. Even those unionizing say they like their longer school day.

The union contract in effect at regular Chicago Public Schools is a hefty, 279-page, bound book of regulations. It dictates everything from how recess should be staffed to the number of minutes in the school day—that's 406 for high school by the way.

HESS: It's a gift-- this blank slate.

Simon Hess is the CEO of Civitas Schools, the nonprofit that manages the three schools where teachers are unionizing.

HESS: We have this amazing opportunity to design schools that can actually be successful in meeting the needs of our students.
 
Hess fears a union contract could jeopardize the longer school day and year Civitas has. And he says he needs to be able to let teachers go if they aren't right for the job.

But the ground under this issue is shifting, both nationally and here in Chicago.

WEINGARTEN: Let's start from scratch. Let's do new contracts. Let's do new unionism.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers. That's the parent of both the Chicago Teachers Union and the new charter schools union. She's been willing to sign what are being called “thin” contracts.

CALLAM: It's 30 pages or so, it reads just like an employee handbook.

Kirby Girolami Callam will be management at a new charter high school opening this fall. The school is being formed by three unions, including the CTU. Teachers haven't even been hired yet, but Callam says he wants them to form a union.

CALLAM: As the school calendar is shaped, as the school year is shaped, as policies and curriculums are chosen and those kinds of things, that teachers are part of that process.

Callam's model is Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles network of unionized charter schools. The Green Dot contract doesn't specify any work hours and it has a no-strike clause. But it spells out exactly how teachers should be evaluated and says they can only be let go for just cause.
 
Some fear that even thin contracts open the door to more provisions being added later. Randi Weingarten told teachers at a rally last month why the CTU contract is so thick. Weingarten said a stupid administrator somewhere tried something dumb...

WEINGARTEN: And then what happened is we had to get a provision that fought against that arbitrary and capriciousness. And when you have a lot of stupid administrators you end up getting a lot of provisions.

Even the 30-page Green Dot contract gained about 20 additional pages when it was renegotiated.

There's one example close to home of a unionized charter school. Teachers at Ball Charter in Springfield have had a union contract for the past four years.

Principal Nicole Nash Gales says it's never limited her. If administrators want to try something new—they bring it up with the union.

GALES: However most of that comes from the teaching staff themselves. There are very creative people who come to work at the charter school.

The school's union president says test scores jumped after the contract was signed. But it hasn't cured high teacher turnover. It's gotten thicker every time it's been re-negotiated, and 17 days have been cut from the school year.