An Unlikely Bargain: Why Charter School Teachers Unionize and What Happens When They Do

An Unlikely Bargain: Why Charter School Teachers Unionize and What Happens When They Do

For nearly two decades teachers unions and charter schools have formed an “us vs. them” narrative that pits one against the other. Unionization efforts by charter school teachers could scramble that narrative. With this report we set out to understand trends in charter school unionization, document teachers’ motivations for unionizing, and assess whether collective bargaining agreements in charter schools differ from those in traditional school districts.

We spoke to sixteen teachers at nine schools where teachers had either recently unionized or were undergoing campaigns to decertify their unions. We also compared the content of their collective bargaining agreements with those in local school districts and analyzed national data on charter school unionization. We learned:

  • Nationally, charter schools are no more likely to be unionized today than they were a decade ago. However, unionization is gaining traction in some localities and states like Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania

    Changes in Voluntary Charter School Unionization Rates


    From the 2009–2010 school year to the 2016–2017 school year the percentage of charter schools that voluntarily unionized declined in Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and Oregon, but it rose in other states—and climbed sharply in Illinois. Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

  • Most of the teachers we interviewed cited growing mistrust between administrators and teachers as the impetus for their interest in unionizing.

    One teacher stated, “The [charter network] is very top-down and centralized and there’s a lot of decision-making that happens at the CMO board meetings that we have absolutely no say in... That really struck me as ironic because the story up until that point in my mind was ‘We’re in control. It’s our classrooms. It’s our school and our community.’”

  • One charter school administrator was more blunt: “The board culture was very chummy-chummy... there was no accountability.”
  • Collective bargaining agreements in charter schools are similar to district contracts, though they are more likely to preserve key flexibilities—especially around teacher evaluation, discipline, and dismissal.
  • As one teacher told us, “We purposely left out tenure... The thing people don’t like about the union is that they protect crummy teachers.”
  • Unionization can enhance teachers’ sense of efficacy working with administrators, but it rarely resolves all of the issues underlying collective bargaining campaigns.
  • Some teachers advocated decertifying their unions either because collective bargaining failed to address their concerns, or administrators showed more willingness to work with teachers. One teacher told us, “When you have strong, capable, ethical administrators and board members, I think a union is unnecessary and counterproductive.”

Taken together, our findings suggest both unions and charter school administrators can be more effective in working with teachers. Administrators may reduce pressures to unionize by ensuring they respond to teachers’ concerns and don’t become perceived as distant governing bodies removed from classroom realities—a potential challenge in multisite networks. When charter school teachers do unionize, union leaders can maintain buy-in by ensuring the support they offer and the contracts they negotiate respond to teachers’ concerns and do not simply replicate labor agreements in traditional school districts.

Ashley Jochim, Lesley Lavery
CRPE Reinventing Public Education