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Where Charter Bargaining Agreements Fall Short

A new report says charter school union contracts lack many inventive provisions.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has said that charter schools can serve as labratories for teaching. A new report, which examines charters’ union contracts, suggets they can act as labratories for labor relations, as well.

About 12 percent of charter schools in the United States have collective bargaining agreements with their unions, either by a state mandate or as part of an individual school’s mission. These union contracts—the first generation of such agreements—generally include unique innovations and are more streamlined, according to a new study by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Released on Dec. 5, “Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain?” examines nine charter schools in urban areas such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Boston.

The major differences in the charter contracts examined include faster grievance processes, avenues for teacher input on organizational decisions, more discretion for principals to determine layoffs, and longer and more flexible workdays and school years. While these elements are viewed as groundbreaking, Mitch Price, legal analyst for CRPE and author of the report, says the inventive provisions generally end here.

“The agreements are more streamlined and flexible in certain areas, but not as innovative as I would have imagined,” says Price. “However, when you’re working with negotiators and teachers coming from traditional public schools, it’s understandable they wouldn’t be as different as you’d imagine.” For example, says Price, the provisions regarding salaries model traditional contracts and generally do not factor student performance in teacher evaluations. Opponents of charter schools may be comforted or surprised that they’re not as radical as they thought.

Green Dot Public Schools, based in Los Angeles, is one example of a charter company that is unionized by design. According to Price, Green Dot’s mission statement values teachers’ unions. There are six states that mandate charters to have bargaining agreements, and another 15 states require it for certain types of charter schools, such as turnaround public schools. Price says that one of the report’s recommendations is a policy change requiring these contracts. “If a charter is trying to be innovative and break out of that one-size-fits-all mold, imposing a bargaining agreement onto that school isn’t always a good fit,” he says.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, once said that charter schools can serve as laboratories for teaching. According to Price, unionized charter schools can also serve as laboratories for labor relations.

“Over time, contracts can grow up to 300 pages,” says Price, “although I’m sure the first LAUSD contract wasn’t that long. This is the first generation of these contracts. We’ll see if they become more restrictive, but for now they can serve as models for alternative language for traditional schools. To overhaul, you need an agreement on both sides.”