New Program Educates Charter Schools about Unions

Published January 1, 2006

Sarah Rosenberg has no intention of joining the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers (MFT).

“The union would slow everything down,” said the outspoken sixth-grade social studies teacher at Edward W. Brooke Charter School in Boston. “Decisions wouldn’t be made efficiently and wouldn’t be in the best interest of the children.”

Even though it costs only $58 to become an “associate member” of the MFT for the 2005-06 school year, Rosenberg isn’t interested. The same is true of her colleagues. “Unionizing isn’t even on their radar,” Rosenberg said.

However, the teachers at Rosenberg’s school, and others in thousands of charters nationwide, are very much on teacher unions’ radar, said Thor Halvorssen, a board member of the Atlantic Legal Foundation, a Manhattan-based nonprofit organization.

That’s why on November 7, Atlantic Legal launched its new Charter School Advocacy Program in New York. Halvorssen said teacher unions in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere are dramatically stepping up efforts to recruit charter school teachers.

“In California alone the unions have earmarked more than $1 million for their organizing efforts. And while union lobbyists claim to welcome charter schools, union bosses in states like Ohio are on record calling charters ‘insidious’ and vocally opposing them,” Halvorssen explained. “Their main interest is not schoolchildren, but to increase their own power and accumulate funding. Their [organizing] tactics are demonstrably deceitful.”

Handbooks Outline Tactics

To help charter schools understand union tactics, the Atlantic Legal Foundation published a handbook titled Leveling the Playing Field: What New York Charter School Leaders Need to Know About Union Organizing, written by experts in labor and employment law at the national law firm of Jackson Lewis LLP. A series of state-specific handbooks will soon be available.

Leveling the Playing Field explains how New York unions are using a decades-old labor law to avoid a democratic vote by all the teachers in a school, through the use of a tactic called a “card check.”

Under New York law, all that is necessary for a school to become unionized is for the union organizer to gather signatures on a “union authorization card” from a simple majority of the school’s teachers. Unions prefer card checks to the more lengthy democratic elections process, the handbook’s authors explain, because “when employees understand the facts about unionization, both good and bad, they reject the idea of union representation more often than not.”

The unions’ push to eliminate democratic voting by schools is heating up in New York as charter school advocates seek to lift the state’s 100-school cap. A November 22 editorial in the New York Post said the United Federation of Teachers will support the proposal to lift the cap on charters “if the charter school teachers are stripped of their right to a secret-ballot vote on unionizing.”

The editorial satirized the union, stating, “The UFT would prefer the teachers’ votes to be counted in public–you know, Saddam Hussein-style–so that it’ll know who its enemies are. Pressure can then be brought to bear on those who don’t want to … fall into line” (emphasis in original).

Unionizing Poses ‘Great Danger’

In New Jersey, Derrell Bradford, deputy director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a statewide school choice group, said he supports the Atlantic Legal Foundation’s Charter School Advocacy Program.

“The [charter school] movement overall is suffering from an inability, or an unwillingness, to identify its enemies,” Bradford said. He is concerned that unionizing charter schools may adversely affect otherwise-successful urban charter schools.

“We are not anti-union but we are pro-kid,” Bradford explained. “We are positive that the outcomes of a successful collective bargaining agreement are not congruous with successful outcomes for kids.”

Bradford believes the current “public school monopoly” is partly to blame for the number of young black men in prisons. As a young black man from a single-parent, under-privileged background himself, Bradford doesn’t hesitate to say “the failed New Jersey monopoly is defrauding urban black kids.”

Financial journalist Peter Brimelow wrote in his 2004 book, The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education, that unions which organize government employees, as in education, are a “monopoly on top of a monopoly.” Brimelow told School Reform News “the great danger” in unionizing charter schools is “the school no longer can simply make decisions on the basis of efficiency because union rules and regulations bureaucratize everything about the school.”

Charters ‘Don’t Need Unions’

When asked how charter operators can help prevent schools from becoming unionized, Brimelow said, “It’s not hard to do. Teachers respond very well to a flexible environment in which they are treated fairly.”

Rod Paige, former U.S. education secretary and currently a national policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, agrees with Brimelow. Paige was honored by the Atlantic Legal Foundation at its November 7 conference.

“The goal for charter school operators should be to take such good care of the members of their team that they don’t need a union to take care of them,” Paige said. “The unions want legal protection, health benefits, and a good working environment–the same thing charter school operators should want. Operators should strive to obviate the necessity of the union.”

Helping charter school leaders do that is one of the goals of the Atlantic Legal Foundation’s new handbook. The seventh chapter, “Skilled Administration Makes a Union Unnecessary,” contains 11 points the authors say will result in “improved morale and performance.”

Brian L. Carpenter([email protected]) is executive director of the National Charter Schools Institute, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan research and technical assistance organization located in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.

For more information …

For more information on the Charter School Advocacy Program or for a copy of its publications, visit the Atlantic Legal Foundation’s Web site at, or call 212/867-3322.