How Charter Schools Bust Unions
By intimidating teachers. By scaring parents. And sometimes by calling the cops.
This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.
As a little girl growing up in Thousand Oaks, California, Alisha Mernick liked to play make-believe teacher. She never imagined then that as a real teacher she would one day find herself facing off with the head of her school, not to mention an armed county sheriff. But one morning this July, that’s what happened to Mernick, 31, a New York University–educated visual arts teacher in her sixth year at Los Angeles’ Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School, while she and a union organizer from the United Teachers Los Angeles handed out leaflets to new Alliance hires near the parking lot of a school building. The handouts contained information about the ongoing effort by teachers at Gertz-Ressler and several other schools operated by Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a Los Angeles–based charter network, to unionize Alliance teachers and counselors.
Alliance educators began their push to unionize in large measure, Mernick says, because they were concerned their employer was not “actualizing its core values,” including the establishment of smaller classes and a personalized learning environment for its students, most of whom are poor and Latino or black. Mernick says that teachers who have signed on to the union effort want more input into decisions regarding curriculum and pedagogy. They’re also questioning how the school assesses their performance and discloses how it spends its funds. Making changes in these areas, Mernick believes, will help Alliance retain the kinds of qualified teachers it prides itself on hiring.
But speaking up can feel risky for nonunionized charter teachers. Indeed, one of the animating impulses behind the push for more charter schools and the broader school-reform movement has been an antipathy toward some of the entrenched institutions of public education—like teachers unions and the teacher protections they champion, which many charter advocates often see as an impediment to accountability and student achievement. Unlike their counterparts in traditional public schools, charter teachers work for private companies or nonprofits, which typically hire them on annual contracts and are legally allowed to fire them without cause or a formal grievance process.
Mernick stood her ground that July morning as she faced the sheriff. Even though she was not violating any laws, he told her that the head of her school wanted her to leave the premises. Mernick told him she “had a protected right” to be there. And she was clear that her employer, Alliance, which had already been slapped with a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order for interfering with union organizing, “knows I’m allowed to be doing this.”
But that didn’t end the encounter, during which Mernick and the other organizer were threatened with the possibility of arrest for trespassing. Finally, after about 45 minutes, the head of the school emerged to tell them they could continue leafleting until 9 a.m., when the professional development for new teachers was set to start. (Teachers and organizers are allowed to talk to employees on campus during nonworking hours but are barred from doing so on company time.) The experience left Mernick shaken. In using law enforcement to try to intimidate her, her boss had turned Mernick’s outreach into a public example of what interested teachers might face if they joined the fight.
Attempts by charter school administrators to thwart teachers’ efforts to unionize are hardly unique to Alliance. While there are charters that have voluntarily agreed toThe lengths that charter schools go to when their teachers try to form unions.: