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Employees at High Tech High – the largest charter school chain in San Diego County – have filed a petition with the California Public Employment Relations Board, asking to be recognized as a union.
High Tech’s organizing effort is part of a growing movement to unionize charter school workforces locally and across the state. In recent years, teachers at Preuss School and Gompers Preparatory Academy, two of the most high-profile charters in San Diego, successfully unionized.
Charter school teachers often say they lack job protections and burnout rates are high among their colleagues when pushing to unionize. But critics have made the argument that unions can stifle the relative freedom charter schools have to pursue innovative educational approaches and help the most disadvantaged students.
“Oftentimes, people say teachers only join unions because they want more money,” said Paola Capó-García, at 12th grade English teacher at High Tech High Media Arts. “Of course, salary is important. But the majority of things we want aren’t financial. They’re more about making sure the administration is hearing us and responding to our voice and protecting our livelihood and putting certain protocols in place so we feel not exploited and not burned out.”
Capó-García said many teachers leave High Tech quickly because they burn out or because pay is not commensurate with surrounding school districts like San Diego Unified.
Administrators for the High Tech chain of schools were not immediately available to comment.
High Tech, which started in Point Loma, has 16 charter schools in San Diego County. It has more than 6,000 students and roughly 400 teachers.
More than 60 percent of teachers and other employees with state-issued credentials, such as school counselors, signed a petition asking to be recognized, teachers involved with the organizing effort said. Public employees, like those at a charter school, only need a simple majority of support to be recognized as a union by the state employee relations board.
If the California Public Employee Relations Board certifies the petition, the administrators of High Tech High will be required by law to bargain a contract with the new union.
One thing teachers will likely push for is more stable contracts.
Teachers at High Tech are currently at-will employees with one-year contracts, said Capó-García.
When Preuss teachers unionized, they successfully secured two-year contracts, instead of the one-year contracts previously offered.
A previous Voice of San Diego investigation found that charter school teachers in San Diego County tend to be far less experienced than their traditional public school peers. That investigation found that on average teachers had much less experience at several High Tech schools than other local charters – indicating that teacher turnover was high at those schools.
The teachers will also likely push for higher salaries and more transparency around pay within the organization, said Capó-García.
If recognized, the High Tech union will become part of the California Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in California.