The state that introduced charter school legislation to the country has its first union of charter-school employees, as teachers from two St. Paul schools returned to the classroom this fall as members of Education Minnesota.
About two dozen teachers at Twin Cities German Immersion School, a K-8th grade charter located at 1031 Como Ave., voted in January to form a union. Five months later, more than 100 staff members at Community School of Excellence, a K-8, Hmong-culture charter on Rice Street and Rose Avenue, did the same.
By voting to unionize, TCGIS and CSE educators and support staff gave the Federation of Charter School Employees its first two chapters – but hopefully not its last, Federation President Susan Johnson said.
“We felt really proud, like we were pioneers,” she said. “As we continue to grow, it will give charter-school teachers an opportunity to network, exchange ideas and collaborate.”
First, each chapter of the new federation must negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with its employer, work that will begin this fall. Members spent the summer electing negotiations committees and learning the nuts and bolts of collective bargaining.
“It’s not going to be a fast process, we know that,” Billie Yang, an education assistant at CSE, acknowledged. “But the end result will be beneficial for both staff and the students.”
Charter schools are publicly funded but exempt from some state laws in order to increase flexibility, autonomy and innovation. Members of the new unions said they are approaching negotiations with an open mind, hopeful their new contracts will reflect the unique identities of their schools.
“There is no template,” Johnson said. “Teachers in most public school districts already have a contract to go off of when they enter negotiations. We start from scratch.”
“We know, as educators, it’s not just about ourselves; it’s about other people too,” CSE kindergarten teacher Casey Seeling said. “We’re working together for the kids.”
While teachers at CSE and TCGIS are looking forward to working collaboratively with school administrators now, their organizing drives were not without challenges.
CSE was the subject of an outside investigation, initiated by state regulators last year, that confirmed reports of financial and procedural mismanagement at the school, including an incident in which Superintendent Mo Chang disclosed the identity of a teacher who reported to authorities suspicions of abuse at home. Teachers and support staff said the working environment at CSE was characterized by fear, mixed messages and high levels of employee turnover.
“There was no grievance process or process for disciplinary actions,” fourth-grade teacher Bong Xiong said. “Many of our colleagues were let go for what seemed like miniscule things, and there wasn’t really a process. It was just one person deciding we don’t really want you here anymore, and the next day they were gone.”
Mee Yang, a Hmong language teacher, lost nine colleagues in CSE’s middle school before the 2013-14 school year. She feared not only for her own workload, but her students’ learning environment. “All those teachers leaving, I think that definitely had a direct impact on our students,” she said. “The teachers that they trusted were leaving.”
Superintendent Chang is well regarded in St. Paul’s Hmong community – “she has done great things,” Xiong said – and many working inside the school worried that forming a union would be viewed as an attempt to tear down the institution she oversees.
“A lot of people were scared, and a lot of it was cultural,” Xiong said. “For many of us who are Hmong, it was a tough situation. A lot of staff I talked to who were Hmong, they were for the union but they did not want anyone to know.”
Pushback from parents
Teachers at TCGIS had similar concerns about turnover and grievance procedures as CSE staff. Their organizing drive, however, drew pushback from an unexpected source: parents.
Johnson, who teaches Spanish at TCGIS, said a “vocal minority” of parents approached teachers with concerns that a union would undermine parents’ role in decisions that affect the school.
One parent, Johnson said, told her, “Don’t negotiate for seniority because it’s going to be harder to get rid of those bad teachers.” But as the process played out, she added, some parents’ views softened. “They realized we actually have the same goals, and it was fear that was keeping us apart.”
A ‘First Amendment’ for charter employees
The success of Education Minnesota’s charter organizing drives in St. Paul is a good sign for the state’s largest teachers’ union. According to the U.S. Department of Education, charter schools are on the rise both locally and nationally.
The number of charter schools in Minnesota as a percent of total public schools has increased from 2.6 percent in the 1999-2000 school year to 7.3 percent in 2011-12, and the share of public-school students enrolled in charters has increased from 0.9 percent to 4.7 percent over the same time.
Still, teachers in most charter schools remain unorganized, and problems arise as a result, Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said.
“We often hear from teachers who are afraid to speak out about problems in their charter schools,” Specht told the union’s official publication, The Minnesota Educator. “A union contract can be their First Amendment, and the first step toward bringing back passion and patience to their classrooms.”
By winning a voice on the job, Yang said, staff at CSE and TCGIS have shown other charter school employees what’s possible.
“If they want greater stability and consistency for themselves and their students, other teachers can organize too,” she said.