New Orleans

Do charter schools need teachers unions?

This story is a collaboration with The Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism dedicated to covering the issues facing America’s teachers.

NEW ORLEANS – Kaycee Eckhardt, a former charter school teacher in New Orleans, has decidedly mixed feelings about teachers unions. She believes they play an important role on certain issues, including ensuring teachers aren’t overworked. But she worries they sometimes squelch teacher voices by insisting on a party line.

“You can’t tell teachers what to say,” she said. “Unions do that a lot, even with good intentions.”

So Eckhardt joined America Achieves, one of a growing number of new organizations aimed at amplifying “teacher voice” — but outside of traditional union pathways. The groups go by names like Teach Plus, Educators 4 Excellence, and Leading Educators, and they offer teachers everything from media training to peer networking opportunities.

Tiana Nobile, co-president of the new United Educators Morris Jeff teachers union, starts the day with her kindergarten class on October 28, 2014. Teachers at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans voted to unionize last year, making them the first to do so in a city that has had virtually no union representation since Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Alex Neason)

Tiana Nobile, co-president of the new United Educators Morris Jeff teachers union, starts the day with her kindergarten class on October 28, 2014. Teachers at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans voted to unionize last year, making them the first to do so in a city that has had virtually no union representation since Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Alex Neason)

The organizations’ power and influence has been growing, particularly among charter school teachers. But recent developments in this charter-dominated city suggest that unions aren’t dead yet — even in places where charters are becoming the new norm.

Interviews with several charter school teachers here elicited complicated and nuanced perspectives on the future of unions — a stark contrast to the simplistic, polarized rhetoric that often dominates the national debate: Like Eckhardt, most teachers want at least some of what traditional unions have to offer, but often in a different and more flexible form. And slowly but surely, they are helping to redefine what it means for teachers to organize.

For some New Orleans charter teachers, that means embracing the new alternative groups; for others, it means working to adapt traditional unions to meet charters’, sometimes unique, needs.

“We can create a new and better path forward for unions,” said Greg Swanson, an English teacher at Ben Franklin High School, a New Orleans charter where earlier this year 85 percent of teachers signed a petition in support of unionization. Franklin is one of two New Orleans charter schools — out of about 75— whose teachers have pushed to unionize over the last year. But Swanson says the Franklin teachers are steering clear of tenure — because “it’s such a poison word.” Instead, they’re pushing for something in between tenure (which can make it challenging to fire teachers) and their current at-will status (which affords them little job protection).

Related: The rise of teachers unions: A look at union impact over the years

Nationally, the vast majority of charter schools have no union affiliation, and most of those charters with unionized teachers are required to do so by state law. Moreover, the percentage of charters with unionized teachers is shrinking: In 2009, 12 percent of charter schools had some union affiliation compared to 7 percent in 2012, according to a report by the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter group. (In New York City, the local American Federation of Teachers chapter founded a charter school in Brooklyn that continues to struggle nearly a decade after it opened.)

The new organizations like America Achieves differ in their specific goals and structure, but they all seek to amplify teacher voice in policy debates, and they rarely, if ever, concern themselves with protecting one of unions’ main raisons d’etre: teacher tenure.

Teachers at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans voted to unionize last year, making them the first to do so in a city that has had virtually no union representation since Hurricane Katrina.

Teachers at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans voted to unionize last year, making them the first to do so in a city that has had virtually no union representation since Hurricane Katrina.

At times, the groups advocate for specific policy positions, like when Educators 4 Excellence aggressively campaigned against “last in, first out” layoff policies after New York City threatened to lay off 6,000 teachers in 2011. But, as the Educators 4 Excellence campaign showed, some of the groups are just as likely to position themselves against unions as alongside them.

America Achieves, where Eckhardt is now the head of the teacher fellowship program, focuses less on advocating for specific positions and more on helping teachers learn how to advocate for themselves.

At any given time, the fellowship program trains between 50 and 75 teachers from across the country, focusing on public speaking, writing op-eds and giving media interviews. Teachers complete an “impact project,” a sort of thesis, on topics like the Common Core. Mostly, though, the program helps put teachers in front of significant policy makers, like when fellows met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2010.

When NBC News launched Education Nation in 2010, a multi-day education conference about the most pressing education issues, America Achieves brought nearly 50 teachers to the event. But they didn’t tell teachers what to say — something Eckhardt says would never have happened with a union.

“It’s like sitting down and talking about building a building and not inviting an architect,” Eckhardt said. “And then we wonder why the building is constantly crumbling.”

Jim Testerman, who leads the National Education Association’s Center for Organizing, responded that his union’s agenda comes directly from teachers, and gets shaped by “tens of thousands” of conversations with members. “This is an association led by members,” he said. “They set the policy.”

Related: Under siege and in bid to stay relevant, teachers unions evolve

Like America Achieves, Boston-based Teach Plus brings together district and charter school teachers with the goal of helping teachers help themselves. Teach Plus works in seven different cities, and their specific agenda and activities vary considerably depending on the locale.

Fellows in Boston partnered with the Boston Public School District to help put in place a recruitment program to place the most highly effective teachers in the most struggling schools. In Indianapolis, Teach Plus teachers voted to downplay the role of seniority in teacher layoffs, favoring classroom performance. The measure was included in a reform package passed in 2011.

Elizabeth Dean, a Teach Plus fellow, is a special education teacher at Alliance College-Ready Academy High School 16, a charter school in downtown Los Angeles. The program appealed to her because it offered the opportunity to escape the isolation of her classroom and get involved in “big picture” conversations. The Los Angeles group is a mix of district and charter teachers — some unionized and some not.

“So often there is a big rift between charter schools and district ideology, and it’s sort of artificially created,” said Dean.

While Dean, a third-year teacher, has never belonged to a union, she worries that they get absorbed in parochial battles, missing the opportunity to help teachers speak out on more universal issues, like teacher retention.

“We’re all here for the same issues and the same purpose,” she says.

Related: Teachers want the role of teachers unions to change, survey says

The biggest teachers union, the National Education Association has teamed up with Teach Plus to win over young teachers, according to Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of a book about charter schools.

Potter said unions need to find ways to engage and partner with younger teachers, including those at charters, if they hope to remain vital and relevant in the long-run.

That’s definitely true in New Orleans, where nearly all of the city’s schools are now charters. Just months after Hurricane Katrina, the city’s school board fired all of the district’s teachers, ending collective bargaining and paving the way for a charter-dominated system where most teachers are at-will employees.

In recent years, a growing subset of New Orleans teachers, including Franklin’s Swanson, have said they prefer traditional union values that protect teachers’ rights to the new union alternatives. A majority of teachers at both Ben Franklin High School and Morris Jeff charter have voted to unionize, although neither union has yet formalized a contract with their boards of directors.

Unions remain “necessary in charters because charters by design are eroding the rights of teachers as workers,” said Rowan Shafer, a third grade teacher at Morris Jeff and co-president of the school’s fledgling union. “Charters hire young people who will work ridiculous hours and burn out rather than provide a sustainable work environment.”

That said, Shafer stresses that Morris Jeff’s teachers do not feel chronically or systemically abused.

One of the first issues they tackled was letters of employment. In the absence of a contract, teachers weren’t getting any written notice that told them whether they’d be asked back at the end of the school year. The school’s board agreed teachers needed this protection, according to Shafer. The union also hopes to address lunch breaks for teachers: some have to eat standing up while monitoring kids.

Teachers at Franklin unionized amid revelations of discrepancies in teacher pay and concerns that teachers were left out of too many decisions.

Mark Quirk, a math teacher at the school, says the staff wants to be consulted when changes are made, even seemingly minor ones. Last year, for instance, the principal abruptly switched to a new online grading system just two weeks before the school year started, Quirk said. Teachers felt like it needlessly made their lives more complicated.

“A lot of complaints building up to our organizing fell on deaf ears,” he said.

Although the teachers remain shy about the word “tenure,” Quirk says their efforts have been motivated by something even more basic: To “know we have a job if we are doing good work and continue to teach kids well.”

Alex Neason is a fellow for The Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism dedicated to covering the issues facing America’s teachers.

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Alexandria Neason

Alexandria Neason is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has contributed to Chalkbeat New York, WAMU’s Metro Connection, National Public… See Archive