Unionization Efforts Could Halt Progress at Innovative Los Angeles Charter Schools
© Hongqi Zhang (aka Michael Zhang) | Dreamstime


Unionization Efforts Could Halt Progress at Innovative Los Angeles Charter Schools

United Teachers Los Angeles aims to unionize successful Alliance College-Ready Public Schools built on flexibility and autonomy

While the Los Angeles Unified School District was making national headlines for a catastrophic iPad scandal in which the district’s efforts to give every student access to an iPad and a new curriculum failed spectacularly, the Los Angeles-based Alliance College-Ready Public Schools charter school network quietly deployed iPads to more than 12,000 students. The group successfully used the iPads to implement a blended learning curriculum using individualized instruction across all of their charter schools that is paying off in terms of higher student achievement for a lower cost per-pupil than Los Angeles Unified.

The Alliance College-Ready Public Schools is a nonprofit group educating more than 12,000 low-income students at 27 public charter high schools and middle schools. Six of Alliance’s schools rank in the top 5 percent of high schools nationwide according to U.S. News & World Report. A study performed by the California Policy Center revealed that Alliance schools have a 91.5 percent graduation rate compared to LAUSD’s 84.1 percent weighted average at schools within the same neighborhoods. In addition, Alliance is known for sending 95 percent of its high school graduates to college and has developed a successful private mentoring program that matches students with successful college students to help Alliance students go on to succeed in college.

But a move by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) seeking to unionize the teachers at Alliance schools risks damaging the charter network’s independent management methods, which have produced some of the most highly functioning schools in the state thanks to their flexible decision-making and collaborative environments.

According to the California Policy Center study, Alliance charter high school students cost $10,649 per year compared to $15,372 per year for students at the neighboring traditional public high schools within LAUSD. Even given the per-pupil cost differential, Alliance schools have significantly higher Academic Performance Index (API) scores, 762 vs. 701, and better average SAT scores than LAUSD students, 1417 vs. 1299.

Yet, almost 70 teachers and counselors at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools announced their efforts to partner with the Los Angeles teachers’ union in March 2015. In addition, UTLA filed charges with the California Public Employment Relations Board in April accusing the charter organization of violating state laws over unionization efforts. On August 5, the state labor board issued a complaint against the charter network and stated that Alliance interfered with the right of its teachers to unionize. The labor board will try to negotiate a settlement between Alliance and UTLA on Aug. 21. If an agreement can’t be reached, a formal hearing will be set before an administrative law judge.

The Alliance College-Ready Public Schools disputes the union’s allegations. Catherine Suitor, Chief Development & Communications Officer of Alliance, said in a statement to LA School Report that the charter group looks forward to arguing its case before the state Public Employees Relations Board. She said, “we have received legal counsel on everything we’ve done as it is relates to the unionization efforts as our goal is to be fully transparent and within the letter of the law.”

Alliance claims the union has actually used strong-arm tactics to harass many teachers at the school who have not agreed to join the union. Paid union representatives have even gone as far as visiting Alliance teachers’ homes in this battle. William Morales, a teacher at Alliance Susan and Eric Smidt Technology High School, told LA School Report, “…there has been a lopsided discussion about unionization at Alliance schools. We have received a doubled amount of information from the union to our work emails and mailboxes, leafleting at our schools and during our professional development, in comparison to Alliance’s outreach.”

Regardless, of the final outcome with the labor board, unionization would have dramatic negative effects on school autonomy and teacher flexibility in Alliance charter schools. Negotiations that take place amongst Alliance administrators will have to be with the union, not with the teachers and other employees. The 2008-2011 UTLA contract agreement with LAUSD is a total of 349 pages; it directs almost every aspect of teacher behavior and school organization. Further, UTLA has not been very effective securing more compensation for LAUSD’s teachers. By contrast, teachers at the Alliance received an 8 percent raise in 2014-2015, while UTLA has been unable to negotiate a raise for LAUSD teachers for eight years.

If a union contract goes into effect at an Alliance school, all teachers at that school would be covered, whether or not they signed a union authorization card or voted for the union. Rather than the current system of open consultation for every teacher at Alliance, UTLA would only allow one “exclusive local representative of the faculty in matters relating to enforcement or administration” to speak or negotiate on behalf of staff with their supervisor about employment related issues covered in the contract. In other words, teachers would no longer have to ability to just talk through issues as they arise with their principal on basic employment issues.

UTLA also has a political track record of attacking charter schools with specific funding to support measures negatively affecting Alliance schools. For example, the organization has spent more than $541,000 to support LAUSD Board Member Bennett Kayser, an adamant charter school opponent, who has voted to deny the renewal of 10 Alliance schools. They have opposed giving new district facilities to charter schools, including the Alliance Tennenbaum Technology Family High School.

In order for Alliance schools and teachers to maintain their current student progress, it is crucial to keep their independence. Unionizing these schools will limit teachers’ academic innovation and constrain opportunities for their students, which will slow the educational improvements that have been made in each of these low-income communities. Autonomy has been the Alliance school system’s strength and has allowed them to successfully implement an innovative technology-based curriculum that gets more students to graduate and go on to college. Let’s hope that the labor board gives the Alliance a fair chance to continue these efforts.

Lisa Snell is director of education and Savannah Robinson is an education policy intern at Reason Foundation.