How far will a charter school go to stop a staff from unionizing? 

Smoke, mirrors, and bullying

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Brooke Harris can still remember the excitement she felt back in the spring of 2013 when Detroit's University YES Academy got in touch for a job interview. Coming from a notoriously dysfunctional EAA school — Mumford High — Harris was thrilled when she heard the northwest middle school was looking to start an elementary and high school.

While Harris, who graduated from University of Michigan's School of Education in 2008, was charmed by the charter's colorful hallways — replete with Nelson Mandela quotes, college pennants and posters emblazoned with words like "grit" — it was the gravity of the recruitment process that sealed the deal. Having been hired by Mumford after a 20-minute interview in a Starbucks, there was something refreshing about the UYA rigmarole, which required Harris to teach a sample lesson, complete a written exercise, and interview with the school superintendent/charter management organization CEO Lesley Esters Redwine.

If the school is so serious about picking the right teachers, Harris contemplated at the time, it must really respect the opinions and hard work of those it does select.

This, she discovered after starting as a high school English teacher in the fall of 2013, was not exactly the case. Teachers were kept in the dark about curriculum choices, there were issues with payment, and when enrollment was under the desired goal the charter management company rearranged schedules getting rid of a prep period. More remarkably, there was nowhere to vocalize these issues since board meetings were held in the middle of the school day, thereby precluding teachers from attending. Even if teachers were miraculously able to make a board meeting because of an aligned lunch break or prep, there was a pervasive fear of speaking up and causing a ruckus. Charter school teachers, for the most part, are at-will employees, which means there is not only a constant fear that one could lose their job from one year to the next, but that speaking out and being considered a "Critical Carla," could somehow negatively impact employment.

After a year of feeling mute, Harris and other UYA-ers made the decision to organize a union last fall — a choice that not only took her and her colleagues on an emotionally exhausting journey, but gave them a firsthand account of the lengths a charter school board and management company would go to halt the unionization process. As they'd eventually discover, control over a school trumped the interests of its teachers, and according to many UYA staffers interviewed by Metro Times, the needs of its students. Despite voting in favor of a union last spring, the teachers at UYA are still not organized.

"University YES actually drove me out of teaching," Harris emailed MT.

Today, Harris — a former high school English teacher who proudly recalls the time she got her honors class to debate Steinbeck "so passionately that the dean of students came in because he thought there was a fight" — works at a Starbucks.


Pinpointing when charter schools and unions became such incongruous forces is challenging, especially since in the early days the two were closely intertwined. One of the initial champions of these independently operated, publicly funded-districts was Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker supported charter schools under the premise that they would have the flexibility to experiment with new teaching techniques that could ultimately be integrated back into traditional public schools. At an AFT convention in 1988 — a few months after Shanker spoke publicly about the charter idea — 3,000 union members signed their support for the idea.

In those advance conversations, buzzwords like "competition" and "portfolio model," which today are commonly plugged into charter speak, were absent. Shanker and other early advocates stressed that teachers in charter schools had to be unionized in order to ensure they felt comfortable deviating from the status quo without fears of retaliation or dismissal. And so, it comes with little surprise — at least in this context — that when the first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992 its staff was unionized.

Of course, each state and legislature passing charter laws had their own goals for these decentralized districts; so, while yes, charters may have been touted by AFT affiliates and aligned with unions in the early days, that doesn't necessarily mean all charter advocates prescribed to Shanker's vision. When Gov. John Engler signed Michigan's charter school law in January 1994, the objective was less about creating partners for traditional public schools and more about competition and choices beyond what currently existed.

"Engler has consistently supported reforms and efforts to promote choice and weaken the public school establishment," write charter school researchers Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson inWhat's Public About Charter Schools?, a 2002 book on the genesis and efficacy of school choice in the state.

A few months before Engler signed off on charter schools, the Michigan legislature voted to eliminate property taxes as a source for public school funding. The manufactured crisis — a loss of $6.5 billion in school taxes for the 1994-1995 school year — was the backdrop for conversations that followed around funding equity and charters schools, which like all Michigan school's today, had no local revenue base. As the state made plans for funds to follow students the charter goals became more apparent.

"The total funding level of schools will be determined by how many students they can retain or attract. The schools that deliver will succeed. The schools that don't will not. No longer will there be a monopoly on mediocrity in this state," Engler said in an October 1993 speech.

This focus on free markets and privatization — 79 percent of Michigan's charter schools are run by for-profit management companies— set a somewhat strained tone between the local unions and the charter movement. Nationally a similar phenomenon was occurring, resulting in the AFT and the National Education Association, the two largest teachers unions, taking national stances against charters as well. In 1993, one year after the first charter opened, Shanker himself renounced the idea, calling charters an anti-union "gimmick."

As unions pushed against charter schools, the education reform movement shoved back with a narrative of schools in crisis, which largely blamed incompetent teachers, and the unions protecting them, for the achievement gap. Charter schools could do their part in this generation's civil rights battle — education equality — by using their flexibility to get around unions and collective bargaining, and instead stand up for hiring-and-firing latitude.

While the Michigan Association of Public School Academies' spokesperson Buddy Moorehouse says the coalition for charter school leaders "does not have an official stance on unions" (MT tried getting in touch with president Dan Quisenberry on several occasions but he would only speak through Moorehouse), their website indicates partiality explaining that most charter schools don't have unions because they "prefer the ability to [be] innovative and remove the red tape element when a teacher is not performing."

The Great Lakes Education Project, a Michigan-based charter advocacy group, more accurately highlights the dichotomy between unions and charter schools. Funded largely by the right-to-work, union adverse DeVos clan, the organization has been forthright in its declaration of union failures, stating on its website in 2004 that unions are "status quo forces looking to protect their cash cow."

So yes, there has long been a history of tension between charter advocates and unions. And while MAPSA is correct in that most charter schools today are not unionized — a 2012 report from the Center for Education Reform found that only 7 percent of charter school teachers are unionized nationally, compared to 68 percent of traditional public school teachers — there has still been increased interest among charter school teachers, like Harris and the other UYA-ers, to organize. Reasons range from a desire for teacher voice to promised stability.

In the mid-oughts the AFT, while still formally against charters, began to recognize that while they may be opposed to the movement, they are not against the teachers. Between 2007 and 2008, the AFT opened charter-organizing divisions in seven cities, including Detroit. Since then the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff has successfully organized three schools: Cesar Chavez Academy, the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, and Arts Academy in the Woods, which is based in Fraser.

UYA was supposed to be the next one.


More by Allie Gross

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