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Analysis

Support moratorium on charter schools, fight to unionize charter school teachers!

A Los Angeles Charter school. Photo: Conveyor Belt [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A Los Angeles charter school. Photo: Conveyor Belt [GFDL  CC BY-SA 3.0 
The author is a charter school teacher in Los Angeles.

I say this as a charter school teacher: charter schools are a capitalist scam. As the United Teachers of Los Angeles strike made common knowledge, charters are a neoliberal project aimed at privatizing public education. The people on the board of my school for the most part have no background in education: they’re bankers, consultants, lawyers and executives – they’re people who know how to make money. Charter schools are profitable. They talk a good game about the need to serve underserved communities but when you take a closer look, it very quickly becomes obvious where their actual interests lie.

Knowing that charters are a scam (and there are many sources you can consult for factual evidence of the great charter grift), the question is: why do I work for one? For the vast majority of charter school teachers in LA the answer is the same: they were either laid off by LA Unified School District after 2008 or unable to get hired by LAUSD in the first place. I fall into the first category. 

Some background: Prior to the year I was hired by LAUSD, the district hadn’t had any openings for new teachers with my credential in many years (the 2008 recession brought mass layoffs and after that opportunities for new teachers were rare). I was lucky to get hired in an incredibly brief window during which they were actually hiring new teachers with my credential. The LAUSD teachers in my school and department were overjoyed to finally be able to hire new teachers; they felt the stagnation was hurting their programs. Denying schools the resources to hire new teachers, people who can bring new practices, different cultural experiences and new technological savvy, is one often overlooked way in which budget cuts hurt traditional public schools. What causes these budget cuts? One major factor in LA has been declining enrollment due to expanding charter schools.

Everyone at my school was quite dismayed when I got my layoff notice in the spring, but there was not a single thing that anyone on our campus could do to stop it. The layoffs came from the district. Since I did not have tenure, once my layoff went through I was considered a candidate from “outside” the district once again (external). For the following years, the only job listings posted by the district were for candidates who were considered to be “in” the district still (internal). These were people with tenure who were laid off at other schools (usually due to shrinking budgets). They get first pick at any job openings in the district, as they should. But where does that leave new teachers, without tenure? As prime new hires for charter schools.

It’s not a coincidence that the charter schools are desperate to hire new teachers at the same time the district is freezing new teachers out. At my charter most of my coworkers have 5 years experience teaching or less, total. Compare this to the LAUSD school that I taught in previously, where almost all of my coworkers had at least 10 years experience, some as many as 40. This is a pattern repeated all over the district: experienced, tenured teachers are in LAUSD schools and brand new teachers are isolated at the (often non-union) charters.

In my experience, charter schools are not most teachers’ first choice. Every teacher at my school falls into one of two categories: either five years or less experience teaching, or they moved to LA in the past few years after teaching elsewhere. For most, charter schools were the only viable option for employment as a new teacher when the district wasn’t hiring. It is the desire to work full time (and pay our rents and student loans) that motivates most teachers to work in charter schools, not an ideological commitment to the charter school vision.

But it is important to understand that there are some advantages to working in some charter schools and these things may speak to why some teachers and families are loyal to them: charters get tons of private funding and they are desperate to legitimize themselves, so they often invest heavily in opportunities for students and staff. At my LAUSD school my class sizes were huge, it was really hard to get my students access to technology and there was no focused promotion of opportunities for staff and students. These are mostly issues that come with budget cuts and extreme deprivation of resources.

At my charter school my classes do not exceed 25 students per class. In LAUSD I had 45 students per class, so my charter classes are almost half the size! We have a laptop for every student. Administration, teachers and counselors are constantly working to enter students into enrichment programs, help them apply for scholarships and go out for competitions (as these things make the school look good). Staff are regularly offered expensive training or encouraged to apply for programs, awards and certifications that could bring positive attention to the school. There’s quite a bit of attention on marketing and promotions (which is nearly nonexistent in regular public schools, for good reason). We are able to integrate ethnic studies curriculum and adopt programs outside of the mainstream. We have social workers and mental health services abundantly available for our students and community members. You may have noticed from this list: we have many of the very things that the UTLA teachers were demanding in their strike. That is not a coincidence.

At the end of the day it’s privatizer money that underwrites all of the things we have and I suspect that our school wouldn’t be quite so well funded if they weren’t in direct competition with regular public schools. Privatizers have to make our schools look like the better option, to pull students away from their neighborhood institutions. They’re willing to pour a lot of private funding into these schools to do so. This is a classic destabilization technique. Starve the public option and pump money into the privatized alternative, to prove the supposed superiority of one model over the other. We see this happening with the postal service, for example.

But still, like many charter teachers, I am proud of the work that I’ve been able to do at my school. I do believe that the people who work in my building every day, the teachers, counselors, paraprofessionals, office and custodial staff, are completely dedicated to our students and are doing the absolute best that they can for them. Of course I acknowledge that this is certainly not the case in every charter school, where regulations and certifications can be notoriously lax.

Even with all of the benefits listed above, charter schools are known for their high turnover rates. Teachers leave my school all the time, pretty much as soon as they get an offer from a nearby district. Why? Because charters are still objectively worse places to work in many ways. Lack of unionization accounts for much of the bad working conditions prevalent in charter schools. My school has a union and we’ve managed to negotiate much, yet even we still have a longer work day than LAUSD teachers, a longer work year and we have given many small concessions that experienced unionized teachers would laugh at, for example: agreeing to work past our contracted hours for special events (no additional compensation).

This is why the privatizers want new teachers at the charters – they’re cheaper labor and much easier to exploit. My school’s administration hates the word “tenure,” they make that very clear. We have managed to negotiate some form of it in our contract but it’s constantly under attack, they claim that seniority protects bad teachers and stifles innovation. What they’re actually afraid of is dealing with teachers who know what they’re worth and can’t be eliminated without a fight. Those teachers are in LAUSD. Their historic strike proves that experienced, organized teachers are a force to be reckoned with and when it comes to this group, the privatizers are afraid.

So it’s clear that we must build solidarity between LAUSD teachers and charter teachers for this reason. Many charter teachers are brand new and don’t even know the extent to which they are being exploited. Who’s going to tell them? Not their administration and not the district. We need mentoring on advocacy and struggle. We need to unionize all charter schools. Teachers who are already in a union should help raise consciousness amongst non-unionized charter teachers, show them what can be gained through struggle and help them fight for a union and better schools.

An example of this model working very successfully is the Accelerated Charter schools, where newly UTLA organized teachers went on strike for eight days, in the first charter school strike in California history. Their struggle brought to light how bad the working conditions can get in charter schools. They had virtually no job protections and no real healthcare benefits. They had to fight tooth and nail for basic rights that every experienced, tenured teacher takes for granted! But with the help of an experienced union and support from striking teachers and community members all over the city, they were able to win big changes in their new contract. UTLA is organizing more and more charter schools and we should support every new drive for charter unionization. UTLA has also advocated for other measures that could help new teachers, like the cap on class sizes in LAUSD. If LAUSD is forced to lower class sizes across the board, this could open up many new positions in traditional public schools and bring more new teachers out of charter world and into district schools with a strong union presence.

We should all support the ban on new charter schools. Every new school that opens in LA pulls money out of an existing school, as we are all competing for the same students and the student population in LA is not getting bigger. The privatizers open school after school to build their investment portfolios, not because they want to expand quality education. Let’s make sure that every student in our city is enrolled in a fully funded school that can support their needs before we think about supporting new ones.

Charter schools ARE a threat to traditional public schools. The even bigger threat are the forces behind and supporting charter schools, like Beutner, the district, the corporations that spend millions to buy LA school board elections. These forces are a threat to teachers, no matter where they work. The capitalist ruling class is united around charter schools. The organized working class is the only force that can push them back. We should all campaign against the expansion of charter schools and the privatized model of public education, which has forced all LA teachers into worse working conditions and every student into worse learning conditions. Every teacher in LA wants the same things: decent pay, decent class sizes, healthcare and more resources for our students. Let’s fight together, LAUSD teachers and charter teachers, until we have achieved these things in all of our schools!

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