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Union influence declining at Mass. charter schools

When teachers at a Brighton charter school unionized four years ago, the first such move in the state, people took notice.

The launch of a union at the Conservatory Lab Charter School marked a breakthrough for the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a sign that its efforts to unionize the charter schools were making inroads. The state’s second-largest teachers union, the federation hailed the union as a “historic organizing victory.”

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But, in sharp contrast to the fanfare around its creation, the union at the Conservatory Lab Charter School quietly disbanded last month after a long stretch of diminished activity. The state’s only other charter school union, on Cape Cod, remains intact, but has no bylaws and does not collect dues.

“It still exists,” said Paul Niles, who directs Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in East Harwich, where teachers unionized last year. “But I’m not sure active is the right word.”

The dissolution of the Conservatory Lab’s union shows that what little hold unions had on charter schools has slipped.

Thomas Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said the loss of the chapter was disappointing but reflected heavy turnover, a reality at many charter schools.

“We like to organize charter schools,” he said. “We like to organize workers. But we knew from the beginning that organizing a charter school was a special challenge. The turnover in staff makes it difficult.”

‘We knew from the beginning that organizing a charter school was a . . . challenge.’

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New teachers “didn’t have the same views” as the teachers behind the union’s creation, he said.

But charter school supporters say it is not surprising charter school teachers have not unionized. Many teachers come to charter schools looking for a change from the climate in traditional public schools, including the standard union-management dynamic, they assert.

“They generally reject the status quo, and part of that is the collective bargaining agreement and the union,” said Marc Kenen, who directs the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

The resistance to unions in Massachusetts charter schools reflects a national trend, educators said.

“For the most part, they’ve had pretty limited success,” said Todd Ziebarth, vice president of state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group.

Nationally, just 12 percent of charter schools have collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions, the group found in a 2010 study. And that percentage includes charter schools in five states — Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, and Virginia — where the law requires that all charter schools be unionized.

Ziebarth said charters are typically set up “out of frustration with all things central,” including union leaders, and teachers in them are often given more of a say in how the schools are run, he said. “They have a strong voice in the mission of the school,” he said.

But Gosnell said he believes charter school teachers would particularly benefit from forming a union. Salaries are generally lower —often by a considerable margin — than in regular public schools where teachers are unionized, and teachers often have to work much longer days.

“They don’t have a say in the length of the workday,” he said.

In a twist, poor working conditions make it harder for teachers to unionize because it leads to high turnover, Gosnell contended.

Diana Lam, head of Conservatory Lab, which has 180 students and a dozen teachers, said the school’s administrators and teachers have a good relationship and problems can be resolved without collective bargaining.

“We are a small school,” Lam said. “Whenever any issue arises, it can be worked out without a third party.”

The “tensions that come with a union,” she said, are not always “conducive to collaboration.”

Teachers had been discussing whether to dissolve the union for more than a year as many of those involved in creating it had left.

On the Cape, Niles characterized his relationship with the union as collegial and productive. The union had led the administration to negotiate with staff in a more formal way, he said. He credited the union with giving local teachers the latitude to handle negotiations as they saw fit.

“There’s a great cooperative spirit here,” he said.

Stephen Gould, a former teacher and school administrator who is now the program director for educational leadership at Lesley University, said it’s been difficult for unions to “get a foothold” in charter schools, which try to avoid top-down leadership.

Kenen said the absence of unions has helped schools make quick changes to staffing, scheduling, and other aspects.

“Charter schools can always make sure the right teacher is in the right classroom at the right time,” he said. “Under a district school contract, that’s not always the case.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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