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Push to unionize charter schools isn’t what you think

It’s no secret that the National Education Association (NEA) is a foe of charter schools. At the NEA’s annual meeting in early July, as is typical every year, delegates considered a number of resolutions excoriating these alternative public schools. 

At least in 2019, the NEA assembly had the sense to vote down New Business Item 59, which demanded that political candidates seeking the union’s endorsement publicly oppose charter school expansion. But that’s not too surprising, considering that the NEA and its Pennsylvania state affiliate, PSEA, have aggressively unionized charter schools even while seeking to kneecap them. 

Here’s a brief history of the NEA/PSEA’s cynical strategy: In 2001, the NEA Policy Statement on Charter Schools insisted that charters must not serve as “an avenue for parental choice” and that they should only operate “for a limited period with five years being the norm.”  

As late as 2017, the NEA issued a new policy statement on charter schools. It contained even more restrictions, such as the proposal that only local school boards should have the authority to approve new charter schools. ” Bear in mind that a local public school has a conflict of interest in such a decision: a new charter school next door might attract students away from the existing school. 

Most interestingly, the 2017 NEA statement takes specific aim at online charter schools, or cyber charters—which are immensely popular in Pennsylvania and serve 35,000 students who are sick, need flexibility, or who otherwise benefit from non-traditional school schedules. The PSEA has followed the NEA’s negative view of charters almost verbatim in its 2018-19 resolutions and public statements

You can see for yourself the NEA/PSEA’s hostility to charter schools. So how conniving is it that the union is now unashamedly seeking to unionize more and more charter school teachers.

Even as far back as 2000, when charter schools had begun growing in popularity, there was debate within the PSEA about how to respond. Union leaders secretly tasked a 17-member work team with a year-long “Charter Schools Strategic Options Project”. (This and other NEA internal documents were made public by the Education Intelligence Agency).

To protect competition over resources from charter schools, the PSEA concluded that charters—which were initially expensive to unionize—had to be resisted. But when that failed, their teachers were to be unionized to prevent any budget savings that would enable charter schools to outcompete unionized district schools (pp. 18-19).

Most important to the PSEA team was political influence. “If we want to maintain our influence, our ability to do ANYTHING, we must make sure that education remains a unionized industry.  Without a strong base, PSEA will wither.” The strategy was to control the contracts of educators: “If we lose our grip on the labor supply to the education industry, we will bargain from a position of weakness” (p. 18).

That’s why, despite fulminating for nearly two decades about the harm done by charters and cyber charters, the PSEA has been quietly organizing teachers at these schools for several years, and has even unionized the state’s two largest cyber schools:

Charter SchoolYear Unionized by PSEANumber of Professional StaffNumber of Students (2020)
Young Scholars of Central PA201046419
PA Cyber Charter20145419,840
Agora Cyber Charter20164835,135
PA VirtualNot Unionized1591,996

PSEA can’t beat charter schools. They’re a popular choice for Pennsylvania families and now boast over 143,000 students—that’s 8 percent of public-school enrollment. 

But their strategy is to unionize charter teachers so that charter schools will be subject to union control and unable to outcompete district schools. In other words, achieving equality by bringing successful schools down to the level of others.

Further evidence for this plot has appeared in the PSEA-negotiated contracts for teachers at cyber charter schools. Even though charter schools are funded by state taxes and should be governed by state labor laws, PSEA has quietly altered any reference to state law in contracts for schools like PA Cyber Charter. After the Supreme Court’s Janus decision gave teachers the right to stop paying union dues or “fair share” fees, they also changed the term “fair share fees” to “agency fees.”

Their goal? To categorize charter school teachers as private-sector employees governed solely by federal law, exempt from state laws. This would open the door to collecting profits from all charter school teachers’ salaries—even ones who choose not to join the union.

Charter school educators beware: the PSEA will happily take your money. But they will fight any policy that actually benefits your institutions—even if it helps the kids you serve.

Elisabeth Messenger

Elisabeth Messenger is CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Elisabeth was in the publicity department at Atlantic Records in Los Angeles, CA. From there, she learned how to build organizations that would impact culture through positions in operations and business development at Universal Music Group, VEVO, and Beats Music.