East Bay Charter Schools Unionize

Will charters still be viewed as the model for reforming public schools?


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Jamie Diaz, the American Indian Model Schools teacher, hopes their contract bargaining will go more smoothly.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

A little less than decade ago, education reformers throughout California hailed American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland as a model for creating a successful public school in an urban setting. Not only did American Indian boast astronomically high test scores, but it did so while remaining steadfastly autonomous from the long-troubled Oakland Unified School District. American Indian employed a bare-bones curriculum, strenuously opposed liberal orthodoxy, and pointed to its ability to fire bad teachers at will as perhaps its chief virtue.

But times have changed.

After years of scandal and administrative instability, the school, which is now called American Indian Model Schools, is undergoing a radical transformation: Its teachers are unionizing, because they say the school has been unable to keep good teachers.

And they’re not alone.

During the past two years, teachers at five Bay Area charter school systems—Community Learning Center Schools, East Bay Innovation Academy, Envision Schools, and California Virtual Academies, which together comprise about 20 schools—have been attempting to unionize or have already done so.

“More and more charter school teachers, like the ones at AIMS, are deciding to organize because they want more of a say in how their schools are run … and many of their colleagues are turning over too quickly,” said Terri Jackson, who is the chairperson of the California Teachers Association charter organizing workgroup and is involved in organizing American Indian teachers.

The unionization of charter schools has the potential to dramatically alter how the schools operate, while raising questions about whether charters will remain the darling of education reformers. For years, charter school backers have blamed teacher unions for being the main cause of bureaucratic dysfunction in public schools—and have championed the fact that charters have traditionally been union-free. So will unionization mean the death of charter schools as we know them?

At American Indian, teachers sent a March 4 letter to the school’s students, parents, and the administration, stating, “[I]t concerns us greatly to see so many of our colleagues leave after short stints in the classroom, and we wonder at our school’s inability to retain excellent, experienced teachers.”

Their letter also listed demands, including multi-year contracts, a fair evaluation system focused on professional growth, representation in all decisions involving teaching and learning, and compensation and benefits comparable to that of Oakland Unified School District teachers (charter school teachers typically make less money per year than other public school teachers). A petition submitted to the Public Employment Relations Board by American Indian teachers wishing to organize was recognized on April 25, giving the school’s administration 15 days to respond.

“It’s been a philosophy of the school to work teachers into the ground, and when they’re tired, to get rid of them,” said Jaime Diaz, a teacher at American Indian who supports a teachers union. “All our best teachers, they bounce,” he continued. “We all treat this as a springboard because there’s no reason to stay here—no benefits, no security.”

Yet Diaz, who has been working at American Indian for the last three years, likes the school and his students and wants to stay, provided that he has a better sense of security and more say in the school’s academic program. He also explained that keeping teachers for longer periods of time can lead to overall better academic performance and student well-being.

Upon learning of the teachers’ plans to organize, American Indian’s superintendent, Maya Woods-Cadiz, who used to be a union representative herself, sent out an email to the school’s teachers, requesting that “any decision you make regarding unionization is an informed one.”

Woods-Cadiz’s email lists the benefits of working at an autonomous charter school, including a “9% raise for staff during the 2015-2016 school year as well as an automatic 1.5% returning increase each year … perfect attendance bonus and benefits … [and] a starting salary of up to $54,000 and a bonus increase each year.”

But Diaz noted that American Indian’s benefits are not all that rosy. The school, for example, offers teachers no retirement plan or paid time off. “We get a $1,000 bonus if we teach the entire year without missing a day, but what happens to a teacher that is sick one day?” he said.

Woods-Cadiz did not respond to requests for comment.

Carrie Blanche, who is a teacher at two Alameda charter schools—Alameda Community Learning Center and Nea Community Learning Center—that were among the first charter schools in the Bay Area to form a union, believes several economic factors are at play. “The Bay Area is an expensive place to live, teachers are not well compensated generally, and they receive lower wages in charter schools on average,” she noted.

For her and her colleagues, the decision to unionize grew out of a distaste for what charter schools had become—changing from mom-and-pop pedagogical experiments to corporate opportunities. “A very big shift happened, and people like myself woke up one day and thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to support this model—turning public money into private dollars.’ ”

She also said that unionizing charter schools signifies an attempt to rein in a previously unregulated enterprise. “Charter schools operate under privacy shields—no one pays attention to us,” she said. “Unions in charters serve as watchdogs; there really aren’t other watchdogs out there.”

She also noted that the recent unionization movement can be owed to a change in attitude by the California Teachers Association and its parent organization, the National Education Association. “CTA has taken an active role in supporting and reaching out to charter schools,” she explained. “CTA didn’t know what to do with charter schools five years ago.”

The CTA now hosts regular conventions that sometimes draw charter school teachers from around the state to share stories and learn about organizing. “There’s now a structure where teachers can actually come to us,” said Jackson of the CTA.

Jackson said that the recent movement can possibly result in charter schools returning to what they were originally: smaller, mom-and-pop schools, where teachers worked with the administration to innovate new teaching methods. “Hopefully, this is a turn to what it should be, with more of the actual stakeholders—educators, parents, and students—having a say in how school is run,” she said, “instead of a big chain coming in without ties to the community or any accountability.”

American Indian’s teachers, meanwhile, could be in for a long haul. Blanche said it took two years to bargain their first contract at the Alameda Community Learning Center. And Oakland charter school East Bay Innovation Academy, which formed its union in February 2015 and began negotiating its pact last June, still has not settled on a contract. “It’s been almost a year and we’re just now reaching the impasse process,” said Jim Malamut, a teacher at the school, referring to a mediation process enacted in the event of a deadlock.

Malamut added that the impasse “doesn’t look like it’s going to be resolved anytime soon.”

Diaz, the American Indian Model Schools teacher, hopes their contract bargaining will go more smoothly.

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