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Charter schools and unions
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)

Don’t call it a comeback. But unions are beginning to take root once again in the New Orleans “portfolio district.”

The board of the Morris Jeff Community School is one of two in NOLA to officially affiliate its teachers’ union with the United Teachers of New Orleans. Last year, the board of Ben Franklin High School in New Orleans also voted 9-1 to let the faculty unionize.

This news should not come as a surprise. Several teachers of charter schools in Chicago helped form ACTS, Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Legendary and controversial union leader Albert Shanker endorsed charter schools early on (He would later reject the idea). The United Federation of Teachers in New York City opened up their own school in 2005. However, the school bearing its name had to partly close unceremoniously because it couldn’t meet the standards of its authorizer, the State University of New York.

Related: Teachers unions on the rise again in New Orleans, 10 years after charters pushed them out

To say that the charter and labor movements are largely at odds with one another is a gross understatement.

”To say that the charter and labor movements are largely at odds with one another is a gross understatement.”

The very mention of unions in cities with a significant number of charters would put most en garde. But ever since the New Orleans School Board decided not to renew the collective bargaining agreement in the aftermath of Katrina, it’s been a fight not worth having. New Orleans has been a system of schools without a collective bargaining agreement for almost a decade and has avoided political confrontations the new world order would say helped academic growth. Others would say the supposed student academic growth came at the price of teacher exploitation.

Time to get out the earplugs and boxing gloves: “The whole [union] machine, is geared at serving employees, not students.” “Corporate education reform is a belief system that operates like a religion, or even a religious cult.” “TFA uses its vast political influence to boost charter schools and drive down teacher pay.” Teachers unions protect bad teachers.

The inevitable arguments will be short on details and big on ideology.

What will probably get lost in the pro/anti union shill in New Orleans is the fact that a remarkable school made itself more remarkable because Morris Jeff Community School constantly decides to be less ideological and more pragmatic. A Charter school can adopt a progressive collective bargaining agreement if you believe students and teachers are in this struggle together.

Related: The lost children of Katrina

We’ve come to expect these kinds of moves from Morris Jeff. The school distinguished itself from the beginning. The founding board didn’t want an unproven leader to serve as principal. They found a local educator with experience, know-how and a commitment to New Orleans. The founding board didn’t take down a historic school name in an effort to change school culture; they uplifted a community hero, Morris F.X. Jeff, Sr. Founding board members didn’t seek out to educate poor black children. From inception, they constructed a quality school for the entire Mid-City community.

In contrast, the highly centralized New Orleans Parish School Board of the past was too distant to really be accountable to a neighborhood. After the storm, reformers obsession for choice settled on promoting lotteries to free children from neighborhood schools. Differentiating themselves from extremes, Morris Jeff board members went door to door in Mid City imploring neighbors of the school to enroll.

Morris Jeff Community School didn’t sell to the entire city. They didn’t sell reform over education. The founders simply wanted to prove that Mid City can have a quality neighborhood school. In doing so, Morris Jeff has explicit goals of including diversity when they talk about “high expectations.”

Now Morris Jeff is one of the most sought after schools in the district. They didn’t get there because of elitism. They got there because of their belief in community.

And now they want to unionize.

Related: Principal in the classroom: Can New Orleans school make it work?

A few things have become clearer ten years after the storm. We’re not going to fire our way to educational success. Producing better testing outcomes won’t be the sign that New Orleans or any other system has improved. True success will be claimed when our graduates go off to college, graduate at high levels and return to be effective teachers, school leaders and board members.

We have to be honest. Union busting has been an aim of certain sectors of reform. Consequently, we’ve ignored the unspeakable hours some teachers in New Orleans work. Many leaders lose effective teachers simply because they want to protect themselves from capricious, often inexperienced school leaders who are judge and jury.

We need unions in New Orleans, but unions need Morris Jeff’s pragmatism and community focus.

Consequently, union leaders have to create agreements that do allow principals to move out ineffective, racist, sexist or non-committed employees. We need contracts that are long enough to compel the most effective teachers to stay and young teachers to develop. But contracts should be short enough to get rid of ineffective teachers quickly.

We have a community to protect.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry

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