Teachers unions, charter schools and ‘different rules’

In an interview with The American Prospect, Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, says her union’s California affiliate represents charter school teachers who voted to unionize after they became disillusioned with management.

The magazine asked whether the NEA could help those teachers. Here’s García’s response:

Well, you know there are different rules. Technically every charter is public because they get public money. But it is a private system and privately managed. So we would have to reinvent the rules. But when our locals respond to a group of charter educators that want to be unionized, there is nobody that I’ve met who says, you know we really need to grow the charter movement. They’re responding to people who are feeling cheated and exploited, and who worry about their students. Charter teachers are saying we don’t want to give up on our school, but we need a union voice. So they’re coming in and saying we want to look at how we can do this, and we’re helping them explore it.

The union is used to negotiating with school districts. This is one reason why labor and management in public education frequently align to support the concept of local control.

While, as García notes, some charter school teachers have sought and received representation from their local unions, many observers have questioned whether teachers unions plan to organize charter schools on a large scale. For that to happen, teachers unions will have to get used to representing teachers employed by the private organizations that run charter schools. There’s less centralized control of charters, and as García says, public- and private-sector unions often operate under different rules.

That’s a key difference between charters and magnet schools, since the latter are still run by districts. It may help explain why teachers unions have been slower to acquiesce to charters, as they eventually did with magnets. However, if the charter movement continues to grow, and comes to employ a larger percentage of public school employees, the unions may face growing pressure to adapt.

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