Organizing those ratty charter schools

By Larry Sand
December 18, 2018

The unions’ “If ya can’t kill ’em, organize ’em” mentality is on display in Chicago.

In a refreshingly honest video from 2011, Leo Casey, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers Vice President, equates charter schools to Walmart – both being very resistant to unionization. Pounding on the table at a socialist gathering, he says it is urgent that charters (publicly funded, privately run) be unionized. Stanley Aronowitz, a long-time union radical, is even more blunt when he says that charter schools are “ratty and should be abolished,” but then adds, “…yet at the same time we should organize them.” Nowhere in this video is the usual disingenuous union “it’s-for-the-children” bilge – but rather it contains the good old-fashioned “If ya can’t kill ’em, organize ’em” mentality.

Seven years later, they’ve gained a pretty good foothold in Chicago where a quarter of the charters are organized, compared to just 11 percent nationwide. There, the country’s first charter school strike started and ended earlier this month. The 500 teachers who work at the 15-campus network of Acero Schools had its demands met, prevailing in the 4-day strike. The union, which is associated with the Chicago Teachers Union and the American Federation of Teachers, got its teachers a pay raise, a reduction in class sizes, shorter school days and a reduced school year.

Why does this matter?

As Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy says, “The end game, according to the union, is ‘for all charter teachers in Chicago to be part of the CTU,’ leading to the same restrictive contracts that prevent progress in public school generally. With these contracts in place, charter schools could be forced to lay off non-teaching positions like social workers and counselors to pay for mandatory step-and-raise salary increases…and make their curriculum less innovative.”

Broy is absolutely right. The unionization effort will essentially “decharterize” charter schools turning them into typical Chicago public schools, almost half of which failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance on its new accountability system. Some of these schools are ripe for state intervention.

Why Chicago?

As Mike Antonucci points out, the Chicago Teachers Union has lost 20 percent of its members in the last eight years. And with the Janus decision now in effect, membership will probably continue to diminish. But strikes are sexy – getting tons of news coverage – and a successful one is an advertisement for what a union can accomplish. While the unions don’t have the manpower to organize “mom and pop” charters, they will be making a concerted effort to go after the large urban charter networks, like Acero, where they can get much more bang for their organizing buck.

There is another union goal. Antonucci explains that strikes – especially the long ones – frustrate and irritate parents who could wind up withdrawing their kids and placing them back in the traditional public school they ran from in the first place, which is just where the union wants them.

Also, there is a political angle. Andrew Broy thinks the timing of the strike was driven by the fact that Chicago is less than three months away from electing a new mayor to replace outgoing Rahm Emanuel, a union bête-noir for championing charters and approving their expansion in the Windy City. Two days into the strike, CTU endorsed Toni Preckwinkle, a mayoral candidate who has promised to push for a freeze on new charter schools.

A charter school’s strength is its ability to avoid the ineffective one-size-fits-all regimen foisted on traditional public schools. But unionization defeats the independence and innovation of charters by imposing collective bargaining mandates, thus blurring the lines between the two, which is just what the unions want. While they haven’t succeeded in eliminating those “ratty” charter schools, they are settling for their second choice: trying to organizing them. And when they’re successful at that, there really is no difference.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.