Charter schools and unions: good ideas in conflict?

The on-line ChiTownDailyNews reports a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on at a charter school where teachers are talking–and preparing to do more than talk–about organizing a union.

The Nonprofiteer doesn’t know the rights and wrongs of this particular engagement, but she firmly believes that charter schools–like other nonprofits–are the most fertile territory for union organizing, and she’s not surprised to see that organizing professionals have figured that fact out as well.  Combine the relative immobility of most nonprofits–the Art Institute of Chicago won’t pick up stakes and move to Singapore–with their routine underpayment and general exploitation of their employees, and it shouldn’t be a surprise when the union comes to call.

Nonprofits sustained themselves for many years on the unwaged labor of women, and for many years after that by skimping on financial capital and trying to make up the difference in human capital.  Everyone who works in the sector is familiar with poor salaries, no benefits, routine demands for unpaid overtime and other violations of the labor laws, and a resistance to improved working conditions based on the “let’s you and him fight” argument that decent salaries for nonprofit workers can only come out of the pockets of nonprofit clients–instead of the pockets of nonprofit Board members, whose job it is to provide resources for their beloved agencies.

It’s not clear that the tactic in this particular organizing battle–to point out that charter schools get public money and thus should treat their teachers the same as those in public schools–is especially on point.  (And, to reiterate: the Nonprofiteer is not making any assertions about this particular school, its particular Board of Directors, or its particular employment policies.)  Rather, it seems to the Nonprofiteer, teachers at nonprofit charter schools should range themselves on the side of all nonprofit employees, and note that the people who do society’s hardest and most important work should probably be paid reasonably for the privilege.

Nonprofits must economize, sure, and more now than ever; but they don’t get to do it on the backs of their workers.

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6 Responses to “Charter schools and unions: good ideas in conflict?”

  1. Yana Davis Says:

    Not surprising at all that unions would be attractive to nonprofit workers, particularly teachers, at charter schools. If anything, what’s surprising is that more nonprofits haven’t seen the organizers calling.

    The idea that workers at nonprofits should sacrifice themselves for the “greater good” is a misconception: they are human beings, just like the intended recipients of the nonprofit largess, and deserve fair and compassionate treatment.

    In fact, it seems to me a betrayal of any nonprofit’s mission, which is typically to “make the world better” in some defined way, not to take good care of the very people who implement that mission.

    And heavens yes, the usually-rich but often-stingy board members can make sure that happens, out of their own charitable giving funds and trusts, or move aside for new board members who will.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      A word in defense of Board members, if I may: in my experience, they’re not “usually-rich-but-often-stingy.” Rather, they’re usually middle-class and willing to stretch themselves in support of the agencies they serve. Most nonprofits whose Board members don’t give anything are ones which haven’t asked their Board members to give anything.

      Also, let’s acknowledge that raising funds for charter schools poses a particular challenge, as those trying to do so encounter resistance from people who say, “I pay taxes to support the public schools.” Thus, union agitation at the charter schools may be a symptom rather than the actual problem, the actual problem being that we continue to pretend we can have first-rate education for second-rate money.

  2. Chartered Teacher Says:

    I just wanted to give you a little “inside” insight on why charter schools (and most charter school teachers) are against unionization, as I work for a network of charter schools – not the one that’s unionizing – and thought you might be interested.

    In Chicago, charter schools are Chicago Public Schools – same requirements, same pupils, same free education. What makes them different in terms of funding is that they actually get less in per-pupil funding ($7,000-something vs. $8,000-something) and have to fundraise to make up the difference, plus raise $ for all the extra special stuff that makes them unique. Despite less money, we have the same responsibility to teach those children and help them pass state-mandated tests as every other school. What can a charter do to bridge this gap? Allow its teachers more freedom.

    It’s clear, in much of Chicago, that public schools are baloney. Graduation rates are abysmal, students are entering successive grades and schools without rudimentary skills. Unionized teachers, protected from their poor performance by the union, cannot be fired or even disciplined for failing to teach. In charter schools, the rules go out the window – the only thing that matters is if you can get through to the kids. If you want to teach outside the box, as many of our teachers do, by taking them out into the community, trying computer modeling, or something else new, and it works, you’ve got the green light from us. Likewise, if a teachers gives it a shot and pretty much fails the kids he or she was hired to teach, we can say, “sorry, you’re not a good fit.” It is a two-way street, and it works a lot like more and more workplaces today, where you’re judged by your skill and ability to perform the task at hand.

    In exchange for not unionizing, our teachers enjoy more than just a place to be innovative instructors – we pay them more than an average CPS teacher, and we offer more professional development opportunities than CPS. All they have to do for us is come to work each day and teach those kids like it’s their job – which it is. Our schools may be CPS schools, but we are so, so different. Losing the bureaucracy allows us to innovate, create, and grow students at rates regular schools cannot dream of – and it gives our teachers the room to make it happen, however it works, to be flexible, and to reach greater potential as educators.

    I’m honestly kind of baffled by the choice of INCS teachers to go union – every one I’ve talked to is interested in the job security aspect of it, not realizing that it means that if a teacher blows off some students with poor teaching in the grade below them, they get to pick up the pieces of a student who had a bad teacher last year in their own class. The union recruiters (they poached teachers ten feet off school grounds at INCS, and sowed seeds of discontent there for years) tried getting an earworm into our teachers, and it is my understanding that they were told to buzz off because we have a good thing here.

    Anyway, thought you’d be interested in another viewpoint.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I understand the argument that unionizing represents a trade-off in the educational context, and that some teachers may prefer having flexibility to having collective bargaining rights. In most nonprofits, though, “flexibility” means “the opportunity to work unpaid overtime” and the like, and its loss would generally represent a gain for the workers. It’s not a simple issue, though, and I very much appreciate your sharing your expertise and viewpoint.

  3. Mitzi Naucler Says:

    The issue of living wages for nonprofit workers has driven me crazy for a long time. When I was the “administrator” of a medium-sized national nonprofit where it was my job to write grant proposals etc. I was often struck by the fact that grantors wanted all kinds of demographic information about who we served and who we hired but not one of them asked me how much our staff was paid. One day while filling out an 8-page chart of information on my staff which included things such as their ages, genders, sexual preferences and disabilities I finally had enough. I called the foundation (a foundation dedicated to the advancement of women and girls) and asked, “why do you want this information? These are questions that I am prohibited by law from asking the employees. You and I both know that one of the main legs of the equality stool for women is parity in wages. Why aren’t you asking me the questions about wages and benefits that would show you that we, in fact, support whole-heartedly the economic independence of women? Not to mention the fact that it is information that I can accurately supply to you.” There was stunned silence on the other end of the phone, so I continued…”why don’t you ask, actually insist that you will not fund projects that do not pay women who work for them a living wage? If you want women to achieve equality an easy way would be to assure their economic security.” We got the check for our project but I never did hear from them on my suggestion. I think this argument is equally important for non-profits working with low-income clients or disabled clients or children. Non-profits must start to model the behavior that they expect from others in the marketplace.

    By the way, I read your blog and appreciate your willingness to bring these issues to the forefront.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      And I applaud your willingness to bring up these issues where it really counts–with foundations whose attitudes continue to depress wages even as they purport to support increased income equality in our society.

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