December 7, 2011

Charter Schools and Unions: Contracts provide innovations but could go further

A new study from the University of Washingtons Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) finds that charter school collective bargaining agreements tend to be more streamlined and provide for greater flexibility than the typical district contract.

CRPE legal analyst Mitch Price, who authored the new report, “Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain?” concludes that, “When charter schools do unionize, whether by design or as a result of teacher organizing, union contracts can be crafted in ways that respect the unique missions and priorities of charter schools, provide teachers with basic protections, and maintain organizational flexibility.”

Price examined nine charter schools unionized either by management design or by teacher vote. For comparison, he examined traditional district contracts and analyzed data from non-unionized charter schools as well.

Price discovered that when charter schools start fresh by negotiating a new contract, as opposed to operating under an existing district agreement, the resulting contracts are most innovative around hiring, firing, and layoffs, as well as basic work rules regarding the use of teacher time. Compared with typical district contracts, the charter school pacts are more likely to align with their schools innovative instructional programs, including:

  • Faster grievance processes. Two unionized charter schools in Chicago require fewer than 50 days, compared to 155 days in the Chicago school district.
  • Explicit avenues for teacher input on organizational decisions, including ways of resolving disagreements other than just contract expansion.
  • More discretion for principals to determine layoff criteria. Seven of the nine charter school contracts allow for the use of teacher performance as a factor in layoff decisions, compared to only 25 percent of the traditional contracts.
  • Longer and more flexible workdays and school years. For instance, typical district contracts include 188 days for instruction and teacher professional development, while the charter school contracts include 194 days.

Despite these innovative provisions, however, the new agreements tend to resemble the typical district contracts. The new agreements make only modest revisions to traditional compensation models, relying primarily on “step-and-lane” salary schedules, and typically do not factor student performance into teacher evaluations.

About 12 percent of all charter schools are unionized; the majority of those (64 percent) are bound by state law to their districts collective bargaining agreement, while the other 36 percent are unionized either by design of the management or because the teachers organized and negotiated a contract. These new contracts provide a first-generation rendition of how the unique mission of a charter school and a unionized staff can develop productive, cooperative relationships.

However, the study concludes, “state laws that force charter schools to be bound by district contracts can undermine a charter school’s ability to protect its core mission and values.” Instead, school leaders and teachers should be allowed to bargain agreements at the school level, where core mission and values can be appropriately accommodated.

It remains to be seen whether unionized charter schools will, over time, adopt more traditional contract provisions or whether these more flexible, school-based contracts could represent the new public school unionism. At least for now, Price concludes, these contracts have found a way to maintain a fair amount of professional discretion in the school buildings while offering teachers basic workplace protections.

The report is available online, as are the contracts reviewed for this study.