Teachers’ union strike at Chicago charter schools not good sign for D.C. movement

On Tuesday more than 500 teachers and other employees walked off the job at 15 Acero Public Charter Schools. According to the Washington Post’s Laura Meckler, the instructors, represented by the Chicago Teachers Union, and charter school management are fighting over issues that “include pay; class size, now set at 32 students; and the length of the school day and school year.” This is the first strike in the history of the charter school movement in the United States.

The Post reporter states that the Chicago union has organized about 25 percent of individuals employed in charter schools in that city, and that the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools relates that across the country about 11 percent of charters have unions. The article also points out that across the nation approximately three million pupils attend charter schools, which number around 7,000.

Last week at the Celebrating Best Practices in Public Charter School Education event, Scott Pearson, the DC Public Charter School Board executive director, had this to say about the condition of our local movement:

“In DC, the per-pupil spend is closer to $20,000. And I know it doesn’t feel like enough – because it isn’t. Tuition at Sidwell Friends is over $40,000 – and they fundraise on top of it. But, acknowledging it should be more, it’s at a level that an Indiana educator would imagine would solve all of her problems. And yet it doesn’t seem to. Our teacher turnover in DC is higher than in most places. Sometimes it feels that we are on this treadmill of churning through teachers, where we end up having to spend a fortune on recruiting and coaching and long-term subs. What are the hidden savings in retaining our teachers, whether through higher pay or reduced workload? For example, would you need instructional coaches if most of your teachers stayed with you for seven years? How many teachers would stay if they could job share and work half time for a bit more than half pay? I’m just throwing out ideas – you are the experts, the ones closest to the issue. But I’d remind you that you have unique freedoms. You are public charter schools. You aren’t unionized. You have exclusive control over your budgets and your personnel policies. And you have uniquely high per-pupil funding. I encourage you to use those freedoms to find a way to make teaching work more sustainable. Perhaps what’s holding you back is PCSB and our high standards of accountability. What I’d say is, if you want to try something bold, talk with us. Your idea may be the one that solves the issue. I would hate to know that our high bar kept you from innovating.”

His speech, however, contains one inaccuracy. We are unionized, at least on one campus. In addition, he should know this to be the case since almost exactly two years ago he suggested that a teachers’ union could be a good thing for our schools. But events have not transpired in a positive way at Chavez Prep PCS, the unionized charter in our town, with teachers and other staff protesting on the streets and educators bringing charges to the National Labor Relations Board. The staff has also complained to the Washington City Paper about the hiring of the TenSquare Consulting Group to improve academic achievement at Chavez, including this comment by Christian Herr, one of the teachers who led bringing the American Federation of Teachers to the school:

“It’s not like we needed to spend $140,000 a month to have someone tell us to do more test prep,” he says. “It was really hard for us when our school board decided some things needed to be restructured, but didn’t even come to us, didn’t even ask what we the teachers thought. They have these buildings full of people who live in these neighborhoods and have worked in these schools for a long time, all this expertise, yet you make the choice to bring in someone who knows nothing about it and pay them massive amounts of money.”

Despite Mr. Herr’s criticism, the Performance Management Framework results for Chavez soared in 2018.

We need to keep a close eye on union activity in Washington, D.C.’s charter schools.

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