News Story

Unionizing Charter Schools Goes Nowhere In Michigan

The failure may explain why Democrats oppose charters

The unionization rate of teachers at public charter schools across the country, including Michigan, has remained relatively flat for most of the last decade, according to a report published by a national charter advocacy organization.

The number of unionized charter schools across the nation grew substantially between 2009-10 and 2016-17, going from 604 to 781. But the total number of charters also climbed, resulting in a slightly lower overall rate of unionization (11.3 percent, down from 12.3 percent in 2009-10). In Michigan, where charter schools are known as public school academies, unionization has not taken hold. In 2016-17, only seven schools out of 294 were unionized.

The numbers were compiled from surveys of state education departments and state and local education organizations by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which included them in a report released earlier this year.

The report cited a close relationship between state-level labor law and unions’s successes in organizing charters.

Some states virtually require union representation of charter school employees by, for example, making charter teachers subject to the same collective bargaining agreement that covers the local, traditional public school. Others, however, prohibit collective bargaining for charters altogether. As a result, there are five states where charters are 100 percent unionized and 20 others in which no charters have unionized employees, the report said.

About 7,000 public charter schools, employing 219,000 teachers, operate in 42 states and the District of Columbia, the report said.

Democratic Party candidates in Michigan have campaigned on closing charter schools in the past. Democratic members of the Legislature have, over the years, introduced various bills that would have limited or eliminated charter schools altogether.

Unions – fueled by dues paid by union members – have overwhelmingly donated to liberal or Democratic causes, according to OpenSecrets.org. For example, the National Education Association made $142.7 million in political donations from 1990 to 2018, with 97.2 percent going to “liberal or Democratic” causes. The American Federation of Teachers made $123.0 million in political donations during that same time period, of which 99.5 percent went to liberal or Democratic causes.

The growing charter school movement that generally doesn’t unionize its members threatens the Democratic Party that has the overwhelming financial support of teacher unions.

Michigan charter school teachers have the same collective bargaining rights as other public school employees. But details of the state public sector labor law, and the manner in which most charters are organized, have limited efforts to organize charter employees by the state’s two main teachers unions, the MEA and AFT. Even in the labor-friendly precincts of Detroit, teachers at only two of 43 charters were represented by unions in 2016-17, the report found.

MEA and AFT officials have suggested that the low number of unionized charters stems from opposition by charter management companies.

“Often times employers violate the protected rights of staff by retaliating against them for trying to speak up about working conditions in their schools,” Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst for AFT Michigan, told Capital News Service this year.

Union officials have also said high turnover rates among charter school staff hinder organizing efforts.

Buddy Moorehouse, with the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said the real explanation is more nuanced. Teachers unions have lobbied heavily to extend to charter schools the law that mandates conventional public school districts to engage in collective bargaining with unions. They have, to date, been unsuccessful.

“But it’s up to the teachers to decide, and by and large they have decided they’re better off without (a union),” he said.

By contrast, the workforce in nearly all of Michigan’s conventional public school districts are represented by unions. Representatives of the MEA and AFT Michigan did not respond to requests for comment on the National Alliance report or the current state of union organizing efforts at Michigan charter schools.