Charter Schools Bully Teachers

It is no accident that fewer than three percent of the nation’s roughly 7,300 charter schools are operated by teachers and that 90% of charter schools do not have a teachers union. So much for the narrative that charter schools started nearly 30 years ago to empower teachers. Some states even allow charter schools to hire teachers with no teaching certification. In addition, most charter school teachers are paid less than their public school counterparts and usually have fewer years of teaching experience. Charter school teachers also tend to work longer days and years than public school teachers.

As deregulated “free-market” schools, charter schools, which are more segregated than public schools, see teachers unions as undermining the free, flexible, and autonomous nature of charter schools. Privately-operated charter schools prefer to treat teachers as non-unionized at-will employees, just like employees in most private businesses. Such employees can be hired and fired at any time for any reason; there is no due process. Charter schools do not want to be “bogged down” by any “restrictions.” They wish to do as they please. In exchange for this liberty, charter schools claim they will deliver “better results” for all. What are these “better results”, though? The fact is that thousands of charter schools have closed for poor academic performance and embezzlement over the last 30 years, leaving many black and Hispanic families angry and out in the cold.

Objectively, the absence of teacher unions in charter schools is a major reason for instability, high employee turnover, and the low quality of education in charter schools. Charter school owners and operators refuse to cognize that the interests of teachers and the interest of students are inseparable. They reject the conclusion that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions; the two go together. If you want students to do well, it stands to reason that you have to take care of teachers, and vice versa. The typical teacher instinctively and naturally wants what is best for their students, but oftentimes they cannot secure the best because they stand alone, that is, they lack the weight, numbers, solidarity, and power of a union to be effective. Teachers are most effective when they are united and support each other. Students benefit most from a united collegial teaching force, not a scattered fend-your-self collection of teachers.

Teachers unions not only give teachers a voice and affirm their dignity, they also ensure better pay, better benefits, and better working conditions for all teachers.1 This is terrible for charter schools because both non-profit and for-profit charter schools focus heavily on “cutting costs” so as to maximize revenue and profit. “Cutting costs” is also a major reason why non-profit and for-profit charter schools often provide fewer programs than public schools and routinely exclude many students even though they are ostensibly “public” and “open to all.”

Considering all of the above, it is no surprise that when charter school teachers strive to form a union, charter school owners, operators, and administrators quickly and deliberately engage in aggressive tactics, bullying, and intimidation to stop teachers from unionizing. Things often get ugly very quickly. Stress, anxiety, and divisiveness surge.

The most recent example comes from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where several hundred teachers, education coordinators, counselors, and other staff are attempting to organize a union in the Propel Charter Schools system. Propel serves roughly 4,000 poor and low-income minority students at 13 Allegheny County locations.

Propel has used a variety of intimidation tactics to prevent the formation of a union. These include telling teachers that they may “hurt their career” by striving to form a union. Other teachers were denied leave by Propel when Propel learned of their union-organizing efforts. Other tactics include spreading disinformation about unions under the guise of “educating employees about unions.” To be sure, employee coercion and retaliation take many forms in privately-operated charter schools.

Sadly, this scenario has played out in many privately-operated charter schools across the country when teachers have tried to form a union to protect their rights and the rights of students. Fortunately, this has not stopped teachers from speaking up in their own name and demanding a real say in things. This courage is inspiring and infectious. Teachers everywhere, in all school settings, must be empowered to direct their own affairs without fear and intimidation. The “COVID Pandemic” has made it clearer than ever how critical teachers are in a modern society that requires an educated public and workforce. People everywhere have a new-found appreciation for the hard work teachers carry out every day. All efforts to marginalize and bully teachers must be condemned and rejected. Teachers must have a strong voice in their schools.

Given the refusal of governments and employers to mobilize working people to take action to defend themselves, working people must rely on themselves to solve the problems plaguing society.

  1. This does not mean that every labor union is perfect, flawless, and blameless. The core idea is that teachers need a strong collective identity and body to protect their rights, otherwise they will remain disempowered and marginalized. []
Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.