A New Union Voice: Charter School Teachers Organize!

By Jane Weinkrantz

Since the charter schools movement commenced, one of the cornerstones of its philosophy was that freedom from the pesky demands of the teachers’ unions would liberate education and make charters more effective than the public schools. After all, the public system was too overburdened with placating greedy, lazy teachers to focus on the real business of teaching. Of course, to those of us who are proud union members, cutting charter schools loose from the process of collective bargaining in the name of academic innovation sounded like cutting off scientists’ research grants in the name of medical progress. Hey, it must be the struggle that inspires us to get results. Therefore, it was a deliciously ironic thrill to read in The New York Times that teachers at two New York City KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools voted to unionize. (“Teachers at 2 Charter Schools Plan to Join Union , Despite Notion of Incompatibility.”  By Steven Greenhouse and Jennifer Medina 1/14/09 )

            “A union contract is actually at odds with a charter school,” Jeanne Allen, the executive director for the Center for Education Reform, told The New York Times. “As long as you have nonessential rules that have more to do with job operations than with student achievement, you are going to have a hard time accomplishing your mission.”

Maybe…just maybe, Ms. Allen, student achievement is inextricably linked to teacher working conditions. Students are not going to thrive in the classrooms of inexperienced, overworked, underpaid, overburdened teachers. (This may be why a 2006 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that students in many charter schools were lagging behind their public school peers.) KIPP teachers would certainly qualify as “overworked” though the hype tells you differently.  Here is the pitch to teach at KIPP schools, direct from the KIPP website:

Inspired to make a lasting impact? Motivated to help ALL children learn?

At KIPP, you have the unique opportunity to change the educational outcomes of students in underserved communities across the nation. An opportunity to do whatever it takes to help all students—many of whom begin KIPP one or two grade levels behind—reach their full potential.

As college-preparatory public schools, KIPP schools thrive on the motivation, compassion, and commitment of our teachers. Every day, our teachers embody the approach that makes KIPP schools successful: a culture of high expectations for achievement, a focus on results, and a philosophy that recognizes there are no excuses and no shortcuts in establishing a foundation of lifelong learning. And every day, these same teachers are helping more than 16,000 students in 66 schools across the nation climb the mountain to college—one student at a time.

For those of us who are public school teachers  and therefore unfamiliar with helping “ALL children learn” and the fine qualities of “motivation, compassion and commitment”,  permit me to explain how those traits are manifested at a KIPP charter school. According to The New York Times, “Several teachers at the two schools---KIPP Amp, a middle school in Crown Heights , Brooklyn and KIPP Infinity, a middle school in Harlem ---said the union organizing drive came about because they wanted a stronger voice on the job and because the demands on them were so rigorous. They also said that they wanted to insure a fair discipline and evaluation system. KIPP’s teachers in New York generally earn at least $10,000 more a year than teachers at the city’s traditional public schools, but also typically work from 7:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as one or two Saturdays a month. Many teachers also give students their personal phone numbers.”           

            Hedrick Smith’s PBS series “Making Schools Work” also examined KIPP schools: “With a long school day ( 7:30 to 5 p.m. ), Saturday classes and three and a half weeks of summer school for everyone, KIPP students spend 67% more time in class than regular public school students. In the classroom, teachers utilize a variety of devices such as repetitive chants and visual aids to help children remember the material they need to absorb. To help after school, teachers make themselves reachable by phone until 9:00 p.m. to field questions when students get stuck on evening homework.”

Suddenly, making $10,000 more than your union peers doesn’t sound like such a great deal if you are teaching 67% more than they are and explaining homework over the phone to your students at night when you should be helping your own kids with their homework. How do such working conditions play out? Well, a study of KIPP schools in California’s Bay Area by SRI International last year found that teacher turnover was a significant problem: “Because of the intense demands placed on KIPP teachers, faculty turnover is very high, raising questions about long-term sustainability of such programs: Leading and teaching in a KIPP school are hard jobs, and turnover in the five Bay Area schools is high for teachers. ... How much turnover can KIPP schools tolerate and still retain the essence of their cultures? Over time, will the pool of candidates for school leaders and teachers continue to meet the schools’ needs?"

It is no surprise that teacher burnout led to change in the essence of the KIPP culture in the form of unionizing. The unrealistic, above-and-beyond commitment to students that KIPP demands pretty much rules out a life beyond the classroom while selling the idea that the truly motivated won’t mind this martyrdom. “It’s a matter of sustainability for teachers,” Luisa Bonifacio, a reading teacher at KIPP Amp, told The New York Times. “There’s a heavy workload, and people have to balance their lives with their work.” Bonifacio also stated that 15 out of 22 teachers at KIPP Amp had signed cards in support of the union. Said union president, Randi Weingarten “The teachers who have been there know that as much as they like working at a KIPP school, they want to find ways to make it better and deal with the high turnover rates. They saw that the way they get their voice and have input is through collective bargaining.”

To my brothers and sisters at KIPP Amp and KIPP Infinity, congratulations on your new union voice. Don’t let anyone tell you that using it dilutes your commitment to your students and their achievement. Union membership sends a powerful message of dignity and respect to your students. Without this message, their education is incomplete.

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