Al Shanker, longtime leader of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was an early cheerleader for public charter schools. Though he believed basic union structures of traditional public schools should remain intact, Shanker saw charters an ideal setting for committed groups of teachers and parents to experiment with new ways of educating children.
Recently, teachers at Grand Center Arts Academy have taken steps toward becoming the first charter school in St. Louis to unionize. Unionization in charter schools is uncommon. According to one survey, only 7 percent of charter schools were unionized in 2012. Last month, about 80 percent of the Grand Center Arts Academy staff signed cards indicating their desire to join a local chapter of AFT.
On the one hand, a union can give teachers a voice. A union that’s accountable to its members allows teachers to participate in the formulation and implementation of school policies. A good union can serve as a counterbalance to an administration that makes decisions without paying attention to the concerns of the people working in the classrooms.
On the other hand, restrictive components of union contracts can interfere with administrative decision-making, offering benefits to employees to the detriment of students. In the Fort Zumwalt School District, for example, the union contract provides guidelines for laying off teachers—last in, first out: new teachers are fired first, even if they are better teachers.
Unlike in traditional schools, families always have the option of leaving a charter school if it doesn’t live up to their expectations. Teachers can’t as easily leave a union. Once teachers unionize, it’s hard to de-unionize.
After an initial union election, no further elections are scheduled, no term limits are imposed, and the union stays in power indefinitely. New employees are forced to accept representation from a union they never had the chance to vote for. A 2015 American Association of Educators survey reported only 8 percent of teachers surveyed had voted for the union representing them.
As Al Shanker believed, charter schools should be laboratories for experimentation. So why not experiment with a new form of union representation in which teachers get to vote for their union in regular elections?
Regular union elections give employees the right to select a union to represent them for a fixed term. When this term ends, employees hold another election where they vote to keep their union, elect another union, or de-unionize the workplace all together. Union elections provide a distinct advantage over traditional union representation, where it can be very hard to remove a union from power if it doesn’t live up to expectations.
In Missouri, school boards get to adopt the labor policy for a school district. Confluence Charter Schools, which operates Grand Center Arts Academy, could set a labor policy that allows its teachers to unionize so long as they are allowed to vote on unionization every two years. This way, if the arrangement with AFT didn’t work out, or teachers wanted the services of a competitor like the National Educators Association instead, they’d have an established policy in place for making this transition.
Confluence has every reason to view the unionization of their teachers with concern. But they can also see it as an opportunity to advance the creative spirit of the charter school movement. And that benefits everyone.