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labor Some N.O. Charters Begin Exploring Teachers Unions

For New Orleans, the debate over charter schools and teachers unions has always been an either-or proposition. The Orleans Parish School Board voided the city’s union contract after Hurricane Katrina, and charter schools began taking over rapidly thereafter. Now, New Orleans is beginning to find out if this hard divide between charters and unions is really necessary, or if the two can somehow learn to coexist.

Tiana Nobile, co-president of the teachers' union at Morris Jeff Community school in New Orleans, teaches her first grade class., John McCusker
Mark Quirk is like a lot of veteran teachers in New Orleans. He thinks of his job as more of a calling than a career, has watched the growing emphasis on test scores with dismay and worries that teachers have lost important rights concerning pay and job security in the privately run charter schools that have taken over public education in New Orleans.
So he and his fellow teachers at Benjamin Franklin High School, which is both a charter and a magnet school with selective admissions, have done something that is typically thought of as anathema at charters: They formed a union.
“Our hope is that if this is done right, and we ask for reasonable, fair things, and the administration works with us, then we could be a model for other schools,” Quirk said. “We’re not out here trying to get rich. Many of us feel like this is a mission in life, to teach young people, to help society be a better place.”
For New Orleans, the debate over charter schools and teachers unions has always been an either-or proposition. The Orleans Parish School Board voided the city’s union contract after Hurricane Katrina, and charter schools began taking over rapidly thereafter, free of the constraints typically imposed by unions on pay, working hours and other policies. Many point to that kind of flexibility as one reason test scores are up and dropout rates are down.
Now, New Orleans is beginning to find out if this hard divide between charters and unions is really necessary, or if the two can somehow learn to coexist. The city already has one charter, the Morris Jeff Community School, with unionized teachers. Ben Franklin will be next if the charter board that governs the school gives its blessing.
It’s a phenomenon that has been gaining traction around the country, particularly among charter schools in California and Chicago. The American Federation of Teachers, one of two big national teachers unions, first started pushing to organize in charter schools around 2007 and now estimates about 12 percent of charters are unionized.
The idea certainly has gotten the attention of charter school leaders here, though it’s hard to say if it is likely to spread any further. Its proponents are hoping for a new paradigm: small, school-specific unions that give teachers more rights and more of a say in decision-making without the kind of picket-line acrimony that often defines the relationship between unions and school districts. No one is talking about going on strike.
But backers acknowledge the idea will meet with skepticism in a city where many educators feel unions exist mainly to defend outdated policies and ineffective teachers.
“You’re probably aware of how vilified the old system was, which I disagree with,” said Quirk, who taught at Booker T. Washington High School before the storm. “Everybody has a story about how this or that teacher just kept getting moved around because she or he had seniority. And that was a problem, but that’s not what we want.”
Quirk said teachers at Franklin do have complaints, however, and 85 percent of them have signed a union petition. He said unequal salaries have hurt morale and one-year contracts keep teachers on edge. They aren’t formally invited back for the next school year until about mid-June. By then, other schools have already hired for the fall, leaving a barren job market for anyone let go.
Quirk said teachers aren’t asking for a lifetime job guarantee, which traditional tenure policies often amounted to, just more timely contracts and perhaps multiyear agreements for those who have proven themselves.
Union proponents also argue that teachers need more of a say on the basic policies that govern life in the classroom.
Quirk offered an example: Franklin recently became a pilot site for Khan Academy, a nonprofit that offers online lessons in math and other subjects. The school already was using software called Edmodo for giving out assignments, and that, conveniently enough, is the same program that Khan uses. But when teachers showed up for school this year, the school had shifted to a different, more cumbersome software platform, Quirk said.
“No one consulted any teacher,” he said. “And that’s what we want: We want a voice.”
Tiana Nobile, co-president of the new Morris Jeff Association of Educators, described an even milder vision for that school’s union, centered mainly on giving feedback to administrators. She said the group is discussing whether to ask for a formal contract but used the phrase “collaborative” bargaining rather than collective bargaining.
“Our goal is just to have a seat at the table,” Nobile said. “We’re not trying to be divisive or adversarial. It’s not an us-versus-them environment. It’s about collaboration and mutual respect.”
So far, teachers seeking to unionize in New Orleans have been pushing on an open door. Patricia Perkins, the principal at Morris Jeff, supports the idea. “Their input is important, and it’s just a formal way to make that happen,” Perkins said, noting that she always was a union member herself during her teaching career.
Duris Holmes, who chairs the board that oversees Franklin and that is likely to vote in the next few weeks on whether to recognize the union there, said he doesn’t have strong feelings either way. But he added, “You’ve got over 85 percent of your teachers petitioning you, and that’s what we’re focusing on. That’s a strong majority.”
Even some prominent national voices in the charter movement have embraced organized labor. All the charters that Steve Barr opened under the Green Dot charter organization in California have their own unions. When Barr briefly took over John McDonogh High School in New Orleans, he invited union representatives to address the faculty, though teachers there ultimately rejected the idea of forming a union, he said.
“Your product is your teachers,” Barr said, “and if they don’t feel empowered, like they’re at the table, eventually that catches up to an organization. It’s also a competitive advantage because, when you have work rules that respect your teachers, you tend to attract better talent.”
Still, unions don’t seem likely to catch fire in all corners of the charter movement. Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, who runs KIPP New Orleans, one of the city’s biggest charter operators, said she hasn’t heard any talk of forming a union at any of her nine schools.
“My hope would be that we’ve created an organization where teachers feel comfortable enough to engage in an open and transparent dialogue,” she said, pointing to weekly staff meetings between principals and teachers.
There are also deeper philosophical objections for charter leaders who want to move the teaching profession in a new direction. They’ve been experimenting with measures like bonuses, merit pay and new opportunities for promotion. And that means getting away from a model — often defended by unions — in which all teachers get paid the same, earn the same step raises and expect ironclad job security.
“We want to make teaching a prestigious career in a way that it hasn’t been,” Kalifey-Aluise said. “The only reason outcomes for students will change is because of outstanding people in the classroom, and oftentimes, these are people who could be offered incredible opportunities in terms of pay and prestige elsewhere. I do think that whole part of (education) has been so traditional and antiquated and is not on par with the way other professions are viewed or operate.”