Strange Bedfellows in Michigan Charters: Unionization and Teach for America-Associated Teachers

Written by: Rachel White

Primary Source: Green & Write

Over the past month, numerous charter schools in Detroit have experienced ample turmoil associated with charter management organizations (CMOs). CMO New Urban Learning (NUL) ended its relationship with Detroit’s University YES Academy as a result of recent charter schools teacher unionization efforts. Closely behind University YES Academy are two U Prep Schools who are working to unionize; their CMO – Detroit 90/90 – is also displeased with the unionization efforts. Behind this tumultuous Detroit charter school context are strange bedfellows: teachers unions and members or alumni of the organization Teach for America.

Efforts to Unionize Lead to CMO Retreat in Detroit

Very few charter schools operating in the United States are made up of unionized teachers. Many charter organizations have seen unionization as anathema to charters’ ability to engage in innovative work largely because of constraints found in many union contracts. However, traditional teachers unions in Michigan are becoming more involved with charter schoolteachers, a movement that may have been sparked by union leaders’ connections to Teach for America (TFA). American Federation of Teachers-Michigan K-12 organizer and policy analyst, Nate Walker, worked for five years as a TFA instructor in Detroit Public Schools. Although Walker claims that he waits for teachers to come to him before he gets involved with organizing efforts, many former TFA teachers have led the organizing drive at both University YES Academy and U Prep Schools.

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

Last fall, teachers in Detroit’s University YES Academy began organizing to be represented by the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS), an affiliate of AFT Michigan. Leadership at NUL, the CMO of University YES Academy, were not supportive of these efforts; nonetheless, teachers filed a petition to unionize in late March 2014 and on April 8th, Michigan ACTS and NUL reached an agreement to hold union elections. However, within 48 hours, NUL informed University YES Academy leadership that the company would be ending its relationship with the school.

Currently, University YES Academy leadership is seeking applications for a new educational services provider to run the school and University YES teachers are moving ahead with the unionization process with a vote as to whether or not they want to be represented by the union set for May 6th.

The Most Unpredictable Tripartite Combination in Education?

Many unprecedented, and most likely unpredictable, events have unfolded throughout Detroit’s charter school unionization process. For example, it looks like more charter school teachers are opting in to teachers unions just as more traditional public school teachers are opting out of teachers unions post-Michigan Right to Work legislation enacted in 2012. Additionally, this process has brought about strange bedfellows: members and former members of TFA  – an entity that has prided itself in bringing in smart, creative, and innovative young adults to become teachers in high-needs communities – and teachers unions – an entity that has been charged with stifling creativity as a result of its strict contractual terms.

Almost a year ago to date, education policy wonks like Rick Hess and Michael McShane warned of “creeping bureaucratization […] remaking the charter schools as a new version of the very system it is trying to replace.” Hess and McShane may indeed be Detroit charter school seers: it seems as though one of the original impetuses for charter schools – to evade the political and bureaucratic process of negotiation union contracts that, some argued, stifled creativity – is infiltrating the system, unpredictably, through the auspices of individuals associated with an organization that has increasingly become involved in education politics, TFA. This tripartite “reform” pairing – charters, unionization, and members or former members of Teach for America  – is definitely unique and something that will be worth monitoring in the coming months as it will surely have implications for students, teachers and, in general, the K-12 schooling community.

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**Note: Changes have been made to the blog as of 5/8/15 with regard to the role of TFAin this process and to clarify that it is TFA members that have led initiatives to unionize in charter schools, not TFA itself. Dana Cronyn, TFA’s director of campus communications, has clarified that “Teach For America–Detroit and local teachers’ unions are both working to provide all of our students with the best education possible. Though at times we may have different perspectives on the best ways to achieve this goal, we welcome open dialogue and transparency with union leaders.  Some TFA–Detroit educators are members of their local teachers union, and we respect that as employees of Detroit’s school districts, teachers have a right to organize. Because these are individual choices, TFA as an organization is not involved. We remain focused on supporting our teachers to become the best they can be for their students.”
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Rachel White
Rachel is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in how political processes impact the ability of school districts — especially those serving traditionally underserved and disadvantaged students — to ensure equitable outcomes for all students. Rachel’s current work focuses on the ways in which states have responded to federal education policy requirements through legislative, bureaucratic, and administrative actions, as well as how local districts understand, interpret, and implement state mandates. Rachel holds a BA in public policy from the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy and an MA in education policy and leadership from The Ohio State University.