Poor Working Conditions Widespread in Charter Schools

About 3.5 million students currently attend roughly 7,400 privately-operated charter schools in the U.S. This represents around 7% of all students and 7% of all schools in the country. Unlike public schools, all charter schools are run by unelected individuals.

Approximately 90% of these outsourced privatized schools have no teacher unions. The vast majority of charter school teachers have no collective organization or unified voice that represents and defends their legitimate and valid interests. As a general rule, the overwhelming majority of charter school owners and operators work overtime to block teachers from forming unions and having greater control over their working conditions. Further, most state laws on charter schools are written in a way to undermine the formation of teacher unions in charter schools. In this way, privately-operated charter schools are set up to undermine the ability of workers to embrace their social responsibility to resist poor working conditions.

Nonetheless, to their credit, over the past 30 years many bold teachers in numerous privately-operated charter schools across the country have successfully fought back against marginalization, poor pay, poor working conditions, and burnout by organizing their peers to form a union so that they can collectively affirm their rights and better serve their students. Unions negate a fend-for-yourself ethos and recognize that an injury to one is an injury to all. Unionized workers typically have higher levels of compensation, better benefits, and greater security than non-unionized workers. ((For extensive information on the many benefits of unions, see the work of the Economic Policy Institute.))

Charter school owners and operators repeatedly insist that their “innovative,” “flexible,” “autonomous,” “independent,” “market” character is a strength that purportedly allows them to hire the best teachers and provide the best education arrangements and results possible. But teacher turnover in nonprofit and for-profit charter schools is very high. By far, the main reasons teachers leave charter schools are poor management, poor pay, poor benefits, and poor working conditions. ((5,000 privately-operated charter schools have closed since their inception in 1991, leaving many poor and low-income minority families disillusioned and out in the cold. The three main reasons for frequent charter school closures are financial malfeasance, mismanagement, and poor academic performance. See: “5,000 Charter Schools Closed in 30 Years,” September 18th, 2021,)) Teacher retention remains a problem in many charter schools, which is why countless charter schools regularly hire uncertified and inexperienced teachers. Some states with charter school laws do not even require teachers to be certified or licensed.

On January 7, 2022, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that:

Teaching staff at Carmen Schools of Science and Technology — a group of six charter schools in Milwaukee [Wisconsin]— are attempting to unionize, and CEO Jennifer Lopez says she won’t stand in their way. If successful, organizers believe they will be the first to unionize an independent charter school in Wisconsin.

Given the well-established opposition to teacher unions by charter school owners and operators, CEO Lopez’s assertion that “she won’t stand” in the way of teachers forming a union needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Does Lopez have a trick up her sleeve? Does she think the union drive is too powerful to stop? Does she believe that mis-rendering the issue of unionization as “an individual decision” will blunt the drive to form a union? Neoliberal forces routinely use language like forming a union should be a “fully informed, personal choice” to create space for disinforming workers and blocking unionization efforts. Regardless, union “organizers are asking the nearly 200 teachers, social workers and specialists of Carmen Schools to sign union authorization cards.” And in all likelihood, the majority will.

One of the most basic and revealing demands of teachers is for better pay and workloads capped at 40 hours a week. This last point is particularly significant because many, if not most, nonprofit and for-profit charter schools have longer school days and school years than public schools, and they generally pay their teachers noticeably less than their public school counterparts. In addition, longer school days and years do not generally translate into improved academic achievement. More time in school does not necessarily produce more learning and achievement. Every year, numerous charter schools from coast to coast fail and close due to poor academic performance. Many others perform poorly for years but are not closed. So much for “market accountability.”

Pointing to other long-standing problems in Carmen Charter Schools, teachers are also demanding that teachers and students have a greater say in decision-making. Workplaces characterized by top-down exclusionary decision-making processes—a key feature of neoliberal managerialism—are never a good place to work. It is one of the main reasons workers leave their job. “Input” and “consultation” are not the same as real decision-making power, which all workers have a right to. The absence of a real say in things naturally leaves a bad taste in the mouths of workers. “I see so many passionate, dedicated, and excellent Carmen staff come and go,” Carmen Southeast High School teacher Leland Pan said in a news release. A main union organizer highlighted “massive, concerning turnover” as a major reason for fighting for a union. High teacher turnover rates undermine stability, collegiality, continuity, and learning, not to mention the ability to form a union. What parent wants to send their kid to a school where teachers are constantly coming and going?

It is important to stress that the just struggle of workers in Carmen Charter Schools is the result of poor working conditions that characterize much of the crisis-prone charter school sector. Thousands of workers in nonprofit and for-profit charter schools across the country are disempowered and have no meaningful say in their own working conditions. The conditions in Carmen Charter Schools in Wisconsin are not unique. Instability and anarchy are widespread.

The only way for workers to improve their lives and the success of their students is by joining together to fight for their rights. No one else is going to fight for their rights. It is an illusion to think that neoliberals and privatizers exist to affirm the rights of workers, which is why neoliberals and privatizers spend a lot of time promoting “feel-good” rhetoric but routinely engage in anti-social policies and practices in real life.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.