Charter teachers union gets thumbs up from state

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The Illinois Education Labor Relations Board certified on Thursday the union drive at three Chicago International charter schools run by the education management organization Civitas. But their word may not be final one, as another petition is pending at the national level and may override this decision.

The Illinois Education Labor Relations Board certified on Thursday the union drive at three Chicago International charter schools run by the education management organization Civitas. But their word may not be final one, as another petition is pending at the national level and may override this decision.

After learning that a majority of its teachers had submitted union cards to the state labor board in April, lawyers for Civitas petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hear the case instead. They argued that Civitas teachers are technically private employees, working for a nonprofit, and are not subject to the state labor board’s jurisdiction.

If the national board accepts the case, it could force teachers to reconsider their union bid in a secret ballot, giving Civitas administrators time to craft a case against unionization. As CEO Simon Hess puts it, Civitas wants teachers to be able “to make an informed decision” in a private setting.

The state board, on the other hand, simply inspects the authenticity of union card signatures and determines if a majority of employees have, in fact, opted to join the union. About three-fourths of the teachers at the Civitas schools signed union cards, according to the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), which supported the organizing push.

It’s unclear whether the state labor board’s decision will stand. Earlier this week, Civitas and union lawyers argued their sides at a hearing before national labor board officials. Final briefs are due May 6; the national board will make a decision soon after, Hess notes.

Among other concerns, Hess is worried that a union contract may impinge upon his charter schools’ ability to provide a longer school day and year, as well as impacting the schools’ right to hire non-certified teachers. Hess also wants to ensure that the schools continue to base teacher evaluation on school achievement goals, especially as measured by student performance on assessments.

Teachers at Civitas schools want a recognized voice in school decision making. They say teacher turnover spiked in the wake of increased class loads.

Speaking to reporters at the Education Writers Association conference in Washington, D.C., this week, AFT President Randi Weingarten weighed in organizing charter school teachers.

Weingarten charged that charter advocates are fighting “tooth and nail” against teacher unionization drives, most notably at KIPP Amps school in New York and at Civitas schools in Chicago.

Instead of fighting, she challenged charter school advocates to accept unions in cases where teachers clearly want them, and to find ways to use charter-union contracts as a testing ground for improving teacher labor contracts in general.

“Charters have a very important role to play as innovators and incubators,” she says. “Why not engage with us … and let charters be incubators of good labor relations.”

Hess counters, “I get Randi’s point and I get the rhetoric.”

He suggests that Weingarten and other labor leaders need to focus first on finding ways to innovate in traditional schools.