Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Charter Schools Must Be Organized

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By Max McCullough

When I began teaching high school history at a Boston charter school in 2013 there was a mainstream consensus that charter schools were effective and should be fostered and expanded. 2010’s Waiting for Superman was the most visible public expression of a bipartisan political truism, that charter schools would save vulnerable kids in “failing” urban districts and everywhere else from rapacious and lazy union teachers. Massachusetts’s charter schools in particular were highly praised. But the seven years I spent teaching coincided with a dramatic change in the charter movement’s standing in public opinion. Even more has changed in 2020. 

As I will detail, the ground had shifted under the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) and American Federation of Teachers – Massachusetts (MA-AFT) even before the onset of COVID-19. But the pandemic turned an existential if abstract battle for the soul of public education into a life-and-death struggle to protect students from the callous and predatory influences pushing unsafe school reopening. It is time for educators’ unions, charter workers, and socialists to recognize how imperative aggressively organizing charter schools is to the interests of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable students.

Only unions can undercut the false barriers that have been erected between district and charter educators, in order to overpower the privatizers and institute the dramatic reforms that students desperately need: comprehensive funding, wraparound social services, mental health support, and an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. Only through collective action, through our unions, can we hope to achieve these goals. Unions give educators the power to fight for their students and win.

City on a Hill educators demand their contract outside the school in Nubian Square.

Where Charters and Unions Stand

Charters are publicly funded schools operated independently by private organizations. Despite the persistent myth that they were the brainchild of former AFT president Al Shanker, charter schools were in fact innovated by the same neoliberal business interests and technocrats that support them today. The first charter schools in Massachusetts were authorized by the state legislature in 1993 and opened in 1995. They have since expanded dramatically. Today more than 60 Commonwealth charter schools divert funds away from already underfunded districts, strangling them and degrading the working and learning conditions in schools. 

The MTA, particularly under former president Barbara Madeloni, diagnosed the problem early and decried the existence of charters as posing an existential threat to public education. The MA-AFT, despite its initial wary acceptance of charters in the 1990s, also came out increasingly against them. 

Unions have explored organizing in Massachusetts charter schools for almost two decades. In 2005 MA-AFT  offered charter educators a discounted “associate membership” and publicly expressed interest in organizing charter schools. In 2008 Conservatory Lab, then in Brighton, became the first charter school organized by MA-AFT; their union failed amid high turnover and management pressure in 2011. Also in 2011, educators at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School joined the AFT. In a surprising partnership, workers at Marlboro’s Advanced Math and Science Academy became the first educators to join the Teamsters in 2014, and in 2015 the Industrial Workers of the World launched an unsuccessful organizing campaign at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School — a cruel irony. 

Despite the hard work of the organizers involved in these early efforts to organize charters, none of this amounted to a systematic or concerted campaign on the part of organized labor to build unions in charter schools. Part of this reluctance can be explained by the grave threat charter school funding formulas pose to public school districts. In the early 2010s, under Obama’s Race to the Top, the MTA and AFT’s hardline stance against charters was justified by the urgent need to stop their state-sponsored expansion. Organizing workers at charter schools could be seen as accommodating and legitimizing their expansion. Expanding charter schools erode funding for districts, undercut salaries, and diminish the entire teaching profession. With charters posing such a threat to the livelihoods of public-school teachers, categorical rejection was a rational and strategic stance for the unions.

However, two significant events in the last five years have changed the landscape, warranting a reevaluation of the unions’ strategy. The first was a 2015 state advisory that highlighted and cracked down on the racist and classist systems of “no excuses” discipline that propped up much of Massachusetts charter schools’ purported academic success. The second was the resounding victory in 2016 of the “No on 2” campaign, which defeated a ballot question raising the cap on charter schools. Taken together, these two events signaled that charter schools had clearly lost some of their luster in the eyes of both the state and the public. The time for a defensive posture has passed. It is still unrealistic to advocate the immediate dissolution of the charter system. But unionization efforts inside charter schools will now further the campaign against privatization by unmasking and resisting these schools’ harmful modes of operation.

In the wake of this shift, two recent organizing campaigns may foreshadow a strategic effort to organize charter workers. In 2018, teachers at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts and City on a Hill joined the United Auto Workers and Boston Teachers Union, respectively. PVPA workers are still fighting for their first contract; CoaH educators won theirs in May 2020. But unfortunately, these great victories remain anomalies. To take the fight to the privatizers, we need a concerted, sustained effort by labor to organize charter school workers in Massachusetts. 

Educators at City on a Hill went public with their union in 2018 by marching on the boss and staging a walk out.

Organizing Charters is Fighting Back

One of the most important benefits that unions can bring to charter schools is basic transparency, something that many union educators in public school districts take for granted. Districts often allocate money in ways that educators find head-spinning, but at least we see their budgets. Most charter educators have no idea how their school is spending money. District pay grades may be inadequate, but at least they’re in writing. Most charter workers can never predict if they’ll take a raise or a pay cut next year. Workers obviously benefit from the transparency of a union contract. The oversight that collective bargaining provides could also help stave off the inevitable creep of corruption experienced by privately-run charters around the country

But students in charter schools stand to benefit the most from their educators’ organizing. The false hope of neoliberal competition was at the heart of the charter school promise to be “zero cost” reforms. All we had to do, the charter boosters said, was move the money around, find new efficiencies, and disrupt the education system. The invisible hand of the market would pick the winners (charter schools), and the losers (district schools) would adapt or be closed in favor of the better schools. This scheme, coupled with persistent austerity-imposed cuts to public education since 2008, precipitated a nationwide crisis in education long before COVID-19. Schools, especially those in poor rural and urban communities, are often laughably underfunded in their task to educate kids out of poverty. Children in challenged and under-resourced schools are the ones most harmed by the market forces unleashed on public education by charter schools. 

As long as the reactionary advocates of charter schools can point to “successful” non-union charter schools, built on racist discipline of students and the exploitation of predominantly young, inexperienced charter school educators, they can deny that schools are generally underfunded and argue instead for their privatization agenda as a zero cost reform. Unions must expose what charter “efficiency” really means – low pay, high turnover, and oppressive learning conditions. Unions must also help educators build their power to resist charters’ worst administrative and pedagogical tendencies. Anything less both abandons children to the predations of the free market and degrades educators’ professional standing. 

 City on a Hill workers held many rallies for a contract between 2018 and 2020 with the support of the BTU.

Unions, Students, and COVID-19

There’s an old union saying: if you aren’t at the table, then you’re on the menu. School reformers have put non-union charter educators and their students on the menu for decades, but the advent of COVID-19 has raised the stakes to literal life and death. The reactionary forces in power, eager to protect their profits by pressuring workers back into unsafe conditions, have recognized that school reopening is necessary to restarting the grinding wheels of capitalism. Even though unions face an uphill battle, many have taken strong stands to protect their members and students as districts engage in bad faith tactics to try and force reopening.

But charter schools are corporatized, secretive, and isolated. There is no organized resistance to poorly considered and politically motivated reopening in unorganized charter schools. This leaves students dangerously exposed. The state is abdicating its responsibility to protect students and educators, and we should not expect charter school operators to take that responsibility seriously out of the goodness of their hearts – especially when their Boards of Trustees are often full of people representing right-wing and business interests rather than students’ families and communities. Students and teachers run the risk of the state leveraging charter schools’ “safe” reopening plans to force district reopening, in their mad dash to restart the economy over the bones of students, educators, and families. 

If unions are to be more than just banks for their membership, they have to stand for something. The MTA and the AFT both stand for educators and students, and this is as it should be. But the test of these convictions is here. All students, including those in charter schools, deserve protection from irresponsible state actors. As the recent successful pressure campaign by the BTU for safe school reopening has demonstrated, unions in schools provide that protection.

Many charter workers already support the demands of the Red for Ed movement.

Unions Must Offer Support

Union density in the United States is lower than at any point since the 1930s. Most young workers in charter schools have few if any family or community ties to unions. The MTA and BTU cannot wait, as they have in the past, to be approached by a few motivated and class-conscious workers in individual schools. The siloed nature of charter education means that these shop-based efforts will almost never grow organically into a movement or spread spontaneously from campus to campus. This passive approach by unions makes nascent efforts vulnerable to the extremely high rate of turnover among charter teachers. It also exposes the few educators who are organizing to great professional risk in the early days of a campaign, since budding educator-organizers rarely have much experience with operational security.

Charter school operators know that unions are coming. Massachusetts teachers unions derive no benefit from silence or secrecy on the topic of charter school organizing. Instead the unions should – as loudly, publicly, and often as possible – proclaim their intention to welcome charter workers into their ranks. Union leaders and organizers should make the case for charter educators to unionize.

In some schools, unions should recruit willing and experienced educators to “salt” charter workplaces by applying for the many persistently unfilled positions in these schools. Unions should also invest in their organizing capacity through dedicated charter organizers and solidarity committees of rank-and-file district educators. Further, unions must prepare to act upon leads at individual schools as they arise and proactively make connections with charter workers. What before would have been unthinkable due to security and privacy concerns – a mass public intake meeting of charter educators managed by union staff – is now possible with the careful use of waiting room, breakout room, and webinar tools in Zoom and other video conferencing programs.

All educators, charter or not, care about fighting against privatizing attacks on children and their public schools. Unions are their vehicle for waging effective counteroffensives. It is well past time that Massachusetts’ teachers unions vigorously engage in lifting up charter workers and students. Solidarity demands it. 

Charter Workers Must Organize

Charter workers are going to be called upon to take risks and make sacrifices, but educators already do that every day for their students. And this is the crucial thing for charter workers to know – unionizing is in the best interests of your students. Exploited, overworked, and burned-out educators who labor without respect or dignity in the eyes of their bosses do not make the best teachers and mentors of young people. Educators’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Unions help educators attend to both. 

The most important thing charter workers can do is to reach out to a union and say you want to organize. But in a way, and despite what a boss will say in the midst of an anti-union campaign, the union isn’t really organizing anyone. Unions, through their technical expertise and staff, offer indispensable support for organizing. Unionization campaigns fail without that support. But in the end joining a union means workers have to organize themselves because the workers are the union. All charter educators have experienced the feeling of needing to do something, to intervene in an administration’s ill-conceived plans, but not knowing what to do. The missing piece of the puzzle is collective, concerted action on behalf of school communities. Unions empower and protect educators to act not only in their own interests but also in the best interest of their students. And students in charter schools deserve immediate action – they only get one shot at a free public education. So make a call, send an email, do whatever it takes to find that first connection in your local union.  Follow these links to contact the MTA, AFT, and BTU. The Boston DSA Socialist Educators group meets every two weeks and is also available to answer your questions and connect you with unionists. You can email us here.

Socialists Must Lead

The DSA has long recognized that education work is crucially important for socialists. Schools are a critical site of class struggle. Educators motivated by working-class concerns serve as a bulwark against the rising tide of propagandistic, nationalist education schemes. Moreover, socialists have a moral obligation to show children glimmers of another, better world and give them the tools to realize it. It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults. Schools are one of the last remaining sites of true communitarian potential in our alienating society, and the revolution is as likely to start there as anywhere else. Socialists must be on the ground now to prepare for and contribute to these scenarios. 

Getting more socialists into education work is a moral and revolutionary imperative. It also provides us with the opportunity to strengthen the labor movement by expanding and radicalizing teachers unions. Socialists should actively find jobs in charter schools, especially those that are most challenged by high turnover and under-resourcing. Once in the schools, socialists should establish lines of communication with their local union, build an organizing committee, and agitate around their coworkers’ issues. Socialists also have the class consciousness to make convincing arguments for the union that go beyond narrow bread-and-butter issues like wages and hours.

I know from seven years of personal experience teaching and organizing in a floundering charter school that what I am asking my comrades to do is difficult work. Finding positions in challenged schools and launching union campaigns are daunting and emotionally draining tasks. But there is great potential for political education in this struggle, for teachers as well as students. Students pick up many lessons from seeing their teachers fight for them. Kids watch and learn – about how free people organize for power, about who really invests in their future, and about how expressions of solidarity affirm their value as human beings. I hope all of us – charter and district educators, students and community – will work together to build public education into something we don’t have to fight against. We must advance that goal by bringing charter workers into the union fold.

Max McCullough is a Boston DSA member and former teacher and organizer at City on a Hill in Roxbury.

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