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“Thin Contracts”: The Way Forward for Charter Schools AND Unions

June 5, 2019

Forbes contributing writer Talia Milgrom-Elcott offers a way forward for charter schools and unions, a way that would provide charter schools with a stable workforce by offering teachers in those schools the basic benefits unions provide: decent wages, benefits, and working conditions. Here’s Ms. Milgrom-Elcott’s opening paragraphs that describe how this might work:

I am part of a growing contingent: a supporter of unions, public schools and public charter schools. This is no easy alliance. Unionizing charter schools can make both parties anxious – even though charters were first conceived by Al Shanker, the then-president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Many charter schools have delivered powerful results for students by focusing on children first. And unions have staked out the teacher-happiness terrain, focusing on satisfaction, retention and job quality. Why have we forced a choice: unions or charter schools; children-first or teacher-first? Personally, I have come to see these dichotomies as false, because students will only thrive in schools where adults are also thriving.

Companies with disgruntled staff don’t make good widgets. How can we expect unhappy teachers to shape thriving humans? As Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, shared in a recent piece in The Atlantic: “As charters go from infancy to adolescence, those who want to succeed for the long haul have to have a stable, vibrant teaching force, and that stable, vibrant teaching force wants a voice and agency.”

Later in the article, Ms. Milgrom-Elcott answers the question she posed above regarding the mental models in place that result in a forced choice between charters and unions:

We can’t ignore the animosity that has long characterized the relationship between charter schools and unions. Charter schools have made explicit structural decisions to side-step some of the more onerous restrictions of traditional teachers’ union contracts, and unions have derogated charter schools’ intentions, in turn.

Ms. Milgrom-Elcott offers a workaround used by several charter chains who have accepted unionization: a “thin contract”. She uses Green Dot’s collective bargaining agreement as an example:

…Green Dot Public Schools, a network of charter schools where in California they are serving about 11,000 students in communities across Greater Los Angeles – (has) unionized teachers and staff have a central role in the organization.

“We want to be agents of transformation in public education, so we have to live and breathe the same context as our peers,” said Chad Soleo, the national CEO of Green Dot. “Ultimately, we want to make sure that our reforms and the lessons we’ve learned in public education are completely replicable in any union setting.

Partnering with an organized workforce has evolved into much more, says Soleo.

“Our educators buy in wholeheartedly to the values of collective decision-making, collaborative leadership, and organized labor,” he said. “In practice, they wanted a different flavor than the status quo.”

Green Dot’s “thin” contract, negotiated in Los Angeles with their unions, both affiliates of the California Teachers Association – itself a joint affiliate of the AFT and NEA, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions – leaves room for flexibility by both the school administration and teachers to remain responsive to student needs. Organized charter schools have typically worked with unions to create these more streamlined contracts specific to the needs of each school community.

I can see “thin” contracts being a benefit to unions as well as charter schools. Many “mature” contracts I worked with near the end of my career incorporated detailed regulations on the length and structure of classes that arguably hampered the ability of teachers to innovate and often included arcane provisions on leaves that taxpayer groups would quote to illustrate how easy teachers have it. These regulations and provisions often emerged because of a controversy in one school caused by a single incident that led to language being added to ensure that an outlying practice was not repeated. The result was an increasingly thick and complicated contract. From the union’s perspective changing any of the language was perceived as an erosion of protection or benefits, making it difficult to strip away language that was no longer needed even if current practices made the language superfluous. Language changes regarding the time frames for the issuance of report cards, drafted when they were done by pencil-and-paper instead of computers, were often viewed as “concessions” instead of “clarifications” making relationships between unions and school boards contentious. In order to make contracts skinnier and more flexible, a requirement in this day and age of technology, both sides need to abandon their win-lose mentality and find “a different flavor” than the status quo.

Ms. Milgrom-Olcott’s closing paragraphs an apt closing paragraph for this post as well:

We’re at a critical juncture in this country, one that requires courageous leadership. Persistent economic inequality and lack of social mobility threaten the fabric of our nation and the health of our democracy. Public charter schools want to combat this. To fully live into that mission, their boards, leaders, teachers, and communities should embrace unionization and negotiate the details with unions. Charter school leaders have an opportunity to reignite their schools as engines of economic mobility and robust democratic participation for their communities. The American Dream might well depend on it.

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