NLRB: Teach for America corps members have a right to unionize

The National Labor Relations Board ruled — once again — that Teach for America corps members have the right to organize. Dismissing an appeal by a Detroit charter management organization, the NLRB reiterated its July decision that the votes of TFA corps members should have been included in a union election that was held last spring on the city's seven University Prep campuses.  

In May teachers within the University Prep charter school network participated in an election to unionize. Following the vote, Detroit 90/90, the charter management organization running the schools, announced that the ballots from TFA teachers should not be counted because these educators are "not professional employees," but rather "temporary employees" who "do not share a community of interest with the other employees."  

The management company's argument that TFA teachers are not professionals seemed to send mix signals. While there are a number of complaints about TFA — the organization (which disclaimer, I participated in) places recent college graduates in classrooms for a two-year commitment with only 5 weeks of training — the fact that these digs were coming from a management company that chooses to use TFA educators in an estimated 10 percent of their classrooms raised some eyebrows. 

Patrick Sheehan, a TFA corps member advising 2nd grade at University Prep Science and Math Elementary School at the time of the vote, delved into this inconsistency during an interview with MLive following the NLRB's original decision in July:  "U-Prep hired us to teach just like other teachers. Making the legal argument that we are not professionals means one of two things: Either Detroit 90/90 doesn't respect the work we do with students or they lied to prevent us from organizing a union.”

In a follow-up article that he wrote for In These Times, Sheehan interviewed another TFA-er and U-Prep colleague, Alex Moore, who spoke more about this logical disparity, explaining how she believed the management company's argument was an attempt to create chasms between the staff. "“[The company] loved us when we were cheap, docile workers, but when we spoke up and organized, they wanted to sweep us under the rug.”

The NLRB's July decision, and last week's denial of an appeal, makes the point that Teach for America teachers are employees of the Detroit 90/90 just like any other teacher and are tasked with the same responsibilities. 

While Teach for America-Detroit's Executive Director Tiffany Taylor told the Detroit News that the organization did not have an official stance on unionization efforts, following the NLRB's July decision Takirra Winfield, TFA’s head of national communications, shared with multiple news outlets the following statement: "[TFA is] pleased that the National Labor Relations Board acknowledged that our teachers are professional, qualified educators who are deeply  invested in their school communities and are able to make individual  choices about their union membership. As a TFA network, we know there is tremendous strength in the diversity of perspectives among our talented corps members and alumni as they work to help make certain that every  child has access to an excellent education." 

TFA's relationship with unions is complicated. While the original goal of the organization was to address the national issue of teacher shortages, over the past 25 years this objective has morphed into something a bit more vague: being a player in the education reform movement — a movement long considered at odds with unions. 

This complicated tension between TFA and unions is particularly salient in Detroit, where the organization's intentions were very clearly not about teacher shortages. When the organization first came to the city in 2002 — they left shortly after because of placement issues — there were plenty of teachers. When it returned in 2010, there were also plenty of teachers. These ventures into cities with teachers began to highlight the organization's new objective. Some of TFA-Detroit's biggest backers and advocates during its second coming included local organizations — such as the Skillman Foundation, who has played a large role in re-invisioning the city's education landscape — national organizations — such as the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, who has been a big player in the national expansion of charter schools — and then local individuals — like education entrepreneur Doug Ross, who is the founder of the University Prep schools. 

When TFA came back to the Motor City in 2010, 15 corps members were hired to teach at U-Prep schools. "With the exception of two, everyone performed very well. They started with the classroom management issues as they came in," Ross told the Huffington Post in a 2011 piece about TFA-Detroit corps members being stuck in the broader education battles between TFA and its admirers and the unions and locals. 

The narrative detailed by the Huffington Post flicks at an interesting tension: While TFA's morphing motives have resulted in accusations that it has a "pro-corporate," "union-busting" agenda, the corps members who join are not necessarily in tune with these attitudes. In fact, as the American Prospect's Rachel Cohen pointed out in a piece about the NLRB's original decision, the organization's corps members may in fact be the most likely to be a part of unionization efforts. "Many TFA-ers are progressive and young, and national surveys find that young Americans are among the country’s most ardent union supporters," wrote Cohen. "According to Pew, fully 55 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 held a favorable view of unions, while just 29 percent held unfavorable ones." 

Currently there are an estimated 350 TFA teachers working in Detroit schools — of that number approximately 60 percent are working in charter schools. And while the charter system is traditionally union adverse, there has been growing momentum. Currently the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff has three schools under its purview: Cesar Chavez Academy, the James and Grace Lee Boggs Schools and Arts Academy in the Woods, which is based in Frazer. 

Teachers at University YES Academy — a school that was started by Doug Ross, the same founder of University Prep — also voted to have union representation last spring. Following the decision, their management company New Urban Learning — which also used to run the University Prep schools before Detroit 90/90 stepped in — announced that they would be stepping down. NUL's decision to leave essentially invalidated the staff's vote to organize, as it meant a new management company — and therefore employer — would have to be brought in to run the school. While YES had previously employed TFA educators, there are currently zero TFA teachers at YES. 
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