Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007 | As dozens of new charter schools sprout in California, teachers’ unions are making halting efforts to bring them into the fold, and to restore their own ranks.

But few charters are biting. In San Diego, only a handful of charter schools are unionized, most of them converted public schools that have never been without a union. Independent start-ups haven’t shown much interest.

“Unions are still grappling with how to do this,” said Craig Leedham, a field organizer with the San Diego Education Association, the city’s largest teachers union. Though governments opened the door to charters in the 1990s, unions have only recently begun wooing charter teachers. “It’s a new part of the public education workforce.”

Now, instead of unions changing charters — as some charter supporters had feared — charters seem to be changing unions. Among those that opt to unionize, many are crafting shorter, simpler contracts and forgoing big-union mainstays such as seniority and tenure. Independent schools like Darnall Charter School are cherry-picking what they like about union contracts — guaranteed rights and safety in numbers — and shrugging off what they don’t — centralized hiring and tenure.

“We wanted to speak with one voice,” said Darnall teacher Steve Seaborg, president of the Darnall Charter Teachers Association. Under the umbrella of the SDEA, which represented Darnall employees before the school became an independent nonprofit, “the things that were unique to us didn’t get up on the radar. … They do now.”

Darnall teachers don’t have tenure, said school director Cinda Doughty. But they have seats on the school board, and a say in which teachers are hired. In other San Diego public schools, teachers are picked by a central human resources office with little input from principals, and assigned to schools they may or may not like. At Darnall, teachers are tied into how the school works, Doughty said, making the union almost redundant.

“It hasn’t really changed anything,” she said. “The teachers here are so used to being the ones that make the decisions, that if a director tried to run the show without taking their needs or desires into place, they’d revolt.”

Charters have traditionally disdained teachers unions, eyeing them as part of the old-school strictures they escaped by going charter. Unlike public schools, charters are governed by boards of their own, and don’t follow policies set by the school district. Each is operated literally by a charter: a document that sets out the mission and practices of the school.

Three years ago, the California Teachers Association launched an effort to unionize charters, marking a seismic shift in the historically rocky relationship between upstart charters and the long-established teachers’ unions. High-achieving charters chalked up their success to casting off union red tape. Unions resented charters for draining students from the public schools, and sometimes lobbied against them.

That history has troubled unions’ efforts to court charter teachers, said Caprice Young, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association

“Why would I want to pay $680 a year to an organization that’s trying to take my job away?” Young said. “That’s what I hear from charter teachers.”

‘We’re Not a Union that Throws Spitwads at Charters’

Yet slowly, the CTA has made progress. New unions are in the works this year at Steele Canyon and Helix charter high schools, both in the Grossmont school district, said Steve McDonald, a charter-school organizer with the San Diego chapter of the California Teachers Association. Hired as a charter organizer in 2005, McDonald started focusing on charters in earnest this year. He has three goals: Bulk up CTA’s membership. Organize the un-organized. And someday, he hopes to nurture a union-operated charter school.

“All teachers, regardless of who their employer is, need job security,” McDonald said. “It comes down to the issue of being at-will.” At-will employees can be fired at any time, for any reason except unlawful discrimination.

McDonald cited the case of two Riverside charter teachers who were fired after they circulated union membership cards in their schools. Some San Diego charter teachers are so leery of anti-union retaliation, McDonald said, that they shy away from talking to him in public. Teacher turnover is higher in charter schools, he said, though charter staff interviewed for this story said their retention rates had improved.

“They have no due process,” he said. “Granted, (under state law) the schools can’t discriminate. But under the at-will procedure, it doesn’t take much to say ‘You’re out of here.’”

Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association, penned a position paper on the issue titled “When Is Collective Bargaining a Good Idea?” Her answer: Always.

“As a union, we do not oppose charter schools,” she wrote, despite charters’ role in pulling students from public schools. “But if we start by recognizing charters … the logical next step is to recognize their role in public sector unionism.”

“We’re not a union that throws spitwads at our charters,” Zombro said.

And if they can’t beat charters, some unions have decided to join them. Some unions have cozied up to the charter movement and opened their own teacher-run schools. SDEA co-ran Kwachiyoa Charter School, now closed, along with San Diego State University and San Diego Unified school district, Zombro said. Charters and unions have joined forces in Milwaukee and Los Angeles, where the Green Dot charters have made waves with a trimmer, less restrictive teacher contract.

‘What’s the Need for a Union?’

But many charters argue that teachers unions, forged nearly a century ago in bitter counterpoint to hostile managers, just aren’t needed at their schools. Teachers aren’t battling management, they say, because they are management. At San Diego Cooperative Charter School, for instance, teachers design curricula, and help decide which teachers to hire.

“All that (a union) does is set up an adversarial relationship,” said Linc Fish, board president of San Diego Cooperative Charter School, which isn’t unionized. “It shouldn’t be and it doesn’t have to be … Unions are an important step toward remedying a bad situation. I don’t think we have that situation.”

Instead of hammering out contracts, many charter teachers say they’ve enjoyed a gentleman’s agreement with cooperative supervisors and boards who are more readily accessible to them in charters, free from the bureaucracy of a big school district. Seventh-grade teacher Peter Chodzko has never been a union member. When asked if his school, Gompers Charter Middle, could benefit from a union, he seemed baffled.

“If teachers feel supported, and teachers are getting the supports that they need, what’s the need for a union?” asked Chodzko.

Union organizers warn that the honeymoon could end when charter principals and boards retire and are replaced. So far, few start-up charters have had to face that issue, Young said. Charters are still fresh-faced, and leaders haven’t changed.

“Still, you could get a new board who might not want to operate that way,” said Richard Barrera, a San Diego regional organizer for United Healthcare Workers. Barrera may run for a seat on the San Diego Unified school board next fall. “What a union does, when it’s working best, is guarantee teachers a say that’s not subject to a gentleman’s agreement. It guarantees teachers something that’s really attractive to them — having a real voice in how things work.”

Steele Canyon teacher Dominic Dirksen said he has a long history of “running into administrators who did not like to be told they were wrong,” and a long tenure with the Grossmont Educators Association. When Steele Canyon became a nonprofit-run charter, he didn’t want to relinquish the rights he’d grown to expect, including tenure. Now, he’s helped kick-start the Steele Canyon Charter Education Association, a school-specific union that takes the GEA contract as its starting point, and keeps tenure intact.

“If we ever got a principal who said ‘My way or the highway,’ we’d fear for our jobs,” Dirksen said.

Likewise, when San Diego’s O’Farrell Middle School went charter, school founder Randy Conry was loath to give up his SDEA protections. Yet he couldn’t stomach many of the union’s requirements. Hiring topped that list. Like Darnall and Gompers, O’Farrell hires its own teachers, and doesn’t grant tenure.

O’Farrell’s situation is somewhat unique. The school is an “arm of the district” charter, which means its payroll is handled by the district, and it isn’t incorporated as its own nonprofit, said Peter Rivera, program manager in San Diego Unified’s Office of School Choice. Nubia, Promise and Museum charter elementary schools have similar arrangements, Rivera said. O’Farrell teachers have agreed to follow SDEA’s contract, with a handful of significant exceptions.

Those exceptions have allowed O’Farrell to tailor the SDEA’s contract to its needs. For instance, O’Farrell teachers are required to teach an “advisory” class, Conry said. Under SDEA rules, which limit each teacher’s number of classes, O’Farrell couldn’t ask teachers to do so without overstepping their class count.

“If it’s a dealbreaker, thanks for playing,” Conry tells would-be teachers. “We hope you find a good job someplace else.”

But O’Farrell teachers can’t cite the SDEA contract when disputes arise.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re in an odd situation,” Conry said. “We don’t have a contract, but we’ve agreed to abide by theirs … unless otherwise cited.”

Charters are cautious to adopt union rules wholesale. The problems are well-known: Last year, the nonprofit-run New Teacher Project released a blistering report that pinned poor teaching to union rules that enshrine seniority over quality, and leave schools powerless over their own hiring. In five large urban school districts, 40 percent of school vacancies are filled by incumbent teachers who schools have little or no choice to hire, the report stated.

“These contract rules thwart any sustained attempt to significantly improve teacher quality — the single greatest school-based factor in increasing student achievement,” said the nonprofit’s press release.

No Us vs. Them

Unions at Darnall, O’Farrell and Steele Canyon have jettisoned those rules, and others that don’t suit their individual schools. In the process, they’re localizing, slashing the bulky contracts that union critics abhor, and dramatically changing the face of teachers’ unions. At Darnall, where teachers regularly pore over budgets on the board, the union scales back its pay demands, well-aware of the school’s limited funds, principal Doughty said. Steele Canyon’s union has even changed its name.

“Our rights are the same — but our mentality about the union is different,” Dirksen said. “I know it’s semantics, but we don’t call ourselves a union. We’re an association. Unions have a bad reputation, of being very us-versus-them.”

Young echoed his words.

“When organizers come onto our campuses and start talking badly about the administration of the school, teachers say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m on the board!’” Young said. “We don’t believe in us and them. There’s no such thing.”

But to organizers like McDonald, “us” and “them” still matter — especially when “they” are signing “our” paychecks.

“They’re operating in their own fantasy,” McDonald said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.