Naiveté Busting – The Need for CharterFolk to Get Real About the Unionizing Efforts Being Directed Against Our Schools

Good morning CharterFolk.

Today’s topic is a sobering one – the growing menace of efforts by teacher unions to organize highly successful charter schools by capitalizing upon the naiveté of charter school teachers and indeed all CharterFolk.

I recognize that it’s a gargantuan topic, not one that can be addressed in a single column. So it will become a series of posts looking at what we need to do as a movement to protect ourselves, and more importantly, to protect our students whose better public education is put at risk by unionizing efforts.

The point here is not union-busting. There is clearly a role for teacher unions in the charter school movement. I will address that topic in one of those future posts.

The point is naiveté-busting – eliminating, or at least significantly reducing, the cluelessness our world exhibits as it relates to teacher unions’ motivation and impact when they go about trying to organize our schools.

It’s my belief that most, if not all, of the bad decisions that we make related to unionization result from naiveté:

  • Teachers not realizing that the unions that are approaching them have been working for decades to destroy the very schools they now seek to unionize and they misrepresent what their future impact will be if teachers unionize.
  • School leaders not realizing that, by shielding teachers from the politics of our movement and downplaying the difference between charter schools and other kinds of public schools, we actually contribute to teachers’ naiveté when predatory unions approach them.
  • And advocates not realizing that going silent on the moral argument for charter schools allows teacher unions to drive a meta-narrative arguing that charter schools are a nefarious force that needs to be countered by unions.

… to name but three forms of naiveté that contribute to the problem.

Clearly, this naiveté has been with us for a long time. It was certainly with us when I was at CCSA, but the stakes were lower.

Back then, there were some high profile unionization campaigns that happened, no doubt. The trauma they placed on some organizations – many doing incredible things with kids – was appalling. But the overall number of situations where unions gained traction was low. Once a year or so, a union would make hay about a school’s faculty choosing to unionize. Meanwhile, we would know about just as many instances where recently unionized schools were quietly decertifying due to the fact that their experiences with unions had been terrible.

Now, though, things are different. While decertification efforts like this one continue to happen on an ongoing basis, the number of schools that the unions claim they are organizing is larger than before.

But it’s not just the raw number. It’s also the spike in the corrosive collective impact that unions are having across all schools as we’re going through Covid. People not close to the reality that schools face just don’t get it. They don’t see that, if a school decides to do something different from the Establishment, they make themselves a target for unionization. So on a topic as controversial as re-opening, one where the unions are clearly vulnerable, the menacing word gets out:

Woe is to any charter school that does anything different.

And so, the different things charter schools would otherwise do, literally don’t happen. And kids and families suffer because of it.

Meanwhile the Zoom world we live in lets the unions be even more stealth in their outreach to teachers. Before an administration is even aware that a faculty is being approached, and lied to, the decision is made.

And once that has happened, the consequences are usually tragic.

Yes, over the years, I have seen a few charter school organizations be unionized and there be no terrible impact on the school. They made it work somehow.

For no school have I seen a unionization effort be a net positive.

And for the vast majority, it’s inarguable: Unionization has been a huge blow to the school and its ability to serve students well.

So it’s time we start doing some new things to better protect ourselves.

Which leads, then, to the next question:

“Why CharterFolk? Isn’t there some other organization that could be doing this better than us?”

To which I have to reply:

Sadly, no.

The sobering reality is that there really aren’t that many organizations out there that are positioned well to do this work. And we face absolutely massive power asymmetries when it comes to sharing accurate information about unionization efforts.

On one side, we see the behemoth force in support of teacher unionization efforts – the unions themselves – having gargantuan resources able to craft and get out any message that they want, and they have massive motivation to present whatever messages they think will best serve their interests, regardless their veracity. As far as motivation goes, it couldn’t be clearer: Teacher unions want charter schools unionized so they can get charter school teachers’ money and can continue building their own strength while simultaneously eliminating the risk that charter schools pose to their generations-long effort to build an education Establishment that serves their own interests before the interests of students, families, and society itself.

On the other side, you have almost nothing. There are no organizations that have significant resources to communicate accurately or to communicate a counter-narrative to what is presented by the unions. And no organization has it as its mission to make sure that charter school teachers get accurate information. Not even state associations and other advocacy organizations see it as their mission. Their job is to advocate for good policy environments for charter schools, not get out the true word about unionization efforts. Meanwhile, principals and other school-based leaders are legally prevented from saying much of anything during a unionizing campaign, and changes to law in the last few years in many states have only further gagged school administrators from saying what needs to be said. And many parties, fearing retribution if they dare say anything negative about a unionizing campaign, will simply avoid the topic altogether.

It leaves, sadly, very few organizations even remotely well positioned to try to make a difference. CharterFolk, a nonprofit having relationships with people connected to thousands of charter schools, not being a school, not being a state association, and not being an entity that can be intimidated through threat or retaliation, is actually one of the few on the landscape that might be able to make a dent.

It also helps, frankly, that anti-unionization isn’t our core message. We’re not some extremist plot against unions generally. No big partner has asked us to take this on. No one is funding us to do it, and we wouldn’t accept funding if it were offered. (CharterFolk, to repeat, is and always will be a majority subscription-financed operation.) The only people who have asked us to write on this topic have been several charter school leaders over the past few months who have said that this is a growing problem and support coming from any source would be incredibly valuable.

So. we’ll try to do our part, things that seem within our capacity if we keep at it over time. Things like:

  • Creating and making available on our website written records of what teacher unions have done and continue to do to kill off charter schools (hopefully eventually articulated down to the state level), so that it becomes harder for teacher unions to present themselves as friends to charter school teachers during unionization campaigns.
  • Demonstrating the amount of money that teacher unions have either successfully directed away from charter schools or have attempted to prevent from getting to charter schools so that our teachers can see how teacher unions have actually been doing all they can to cut charter school teacher pay and reduce charter school teacher benefits, rather than being a champion for charter school teachers being justly compensated.
  • Cataloging the efforts that teacher unions have made to deny charter schools access to reasonable facilities, thereby doing all they can to ensure that charter school teachers’ working conditions (never mind the conditions that students have to learn within) are as unsuitable as possible.
  • Documenting the experiences of those who have seen how grievously wrong it was for their school to unionize and have been part of decertification efforts.
  • Highlighting the many instances of charter schools being promised flexibility by union organizers only to be told in the end that there was no option but to accept a contract that was essentially identical to the contracts used by traditional public schools.
  • Educating charter school teachers about the unionization process itself so that unions are less likely to be able to get teachers to make commitments they don’t fully understand.
  • Cracking open the economics of teachers paying career-long union dues so they can better understand the value of the money that the union will take from them over the course of a teaching career.
  • Educating charter school teachers about what are and what are not bargainable issues so that teachers can see that the range of issues unions claim they can influence are actually illegal to bring into a bargaining context.
  • Showing why the fact that charter schools must be financially accountable in ways that school districts aren’t makes it impossible for union organizers to get charter school teachers the salary and benefit increases they can get for district teachers working for entities which states are forced to bailout and pay unfunded liabilities for.
  • Exposing the money and power incentives that teacher unions have to unionize a charter school.
  • Disabusing charter school leaders of the notion that it is wise to de-emphasize the difference between charter schools and district schools because such efforts undercut the rationale for making sure that charter schools remain free from unions.
  • Encouraging charter school leaders to return to the day when induction activities for new teachers included education about the charter school movement and about why working for a charter school is a particularly noble calling because of the broader movement’s mission to tear down inequities that have been cooked into our public education system in large part by teacher unions.
  • Encouraging charter school leaders to stop talking smack about other charter schools because it feeds into the negative messaging that union organizers use against charter schools during their organizing campaigns.
  • Imploring charter school leaders to understand that running a great program is no defense against unionization but is in fact something that only increases the likelihood that your school becomes targeted due the fact that your success is a threat to the system and is an incentive for the unions to prioritize your school in order to “put another head on the wall.”
  • Continuing to beseech charter school advocates to return to the day when we speak openly about the shortcomings of the traditional public school system so that we keep front and center why the charter school movement exists and why it is so important that we have charter schools free from unions able to help us build the new public school system our kids, our families and our country so desperately needs.

In short, an effort at naiveté-busting.

Maybe an article or two per month over the next year or so, hopefully by the end amassing enough information that, if CharterFolk are seeking a place where they can get the real story about unionization efforts, they’ll know there’s at least one place they can turn.

If anyone wants to pitch in and craft a piece yourself, let me know.

Because when it comes to accelerating the generation of materials that would help reduce our collective naiveté as a movement about one of the worst threats coming against us …

… CharterFolk, believe me …

… the invitation is open.