An elephant in the room when discussing publicly-funded charters vs. traditional public schools is collective bargaining—union vs. non-union. I think it is time we face the issue head-on and begin a charter-by-charter, district-by-district conversation. One way to achieve this goal is to experiment with “thin” contracts that forego tenure and seniority-based layoffs, and provide opportunities for performance pay based on results—not just results from state tests.
Last month, the Board of Education convened a special meeting on charter schools that was attended by more than 60 people. During public comments, a trustee from another district said that I sounded anti-union in my comments.
I told her I have been a strong union supporter my entire life, especially during my public sector career. In fact, I was once union president, vice-president and grievance chair for my local California Teachers Association (CTA) union.
In the late 1970s, I used a bullhorn on the back of a pickup truck to rally teachers to support a pending work action against the superintendent and board for an equitable collectively bargained contract. I was a dues paying member of the NEA/CTA union for 13 years. Then I was hired as a public school administrator, serving as principal in an elementary and middle schools for over 20 years.
As principal, I was a member of a professional association, the Association of California School Administrators, and was no longer allowed to be a member of a union. As a principal I had very few rights and was an at-will employee.
In that role I paid attention to the CTA, SEIU and CSEA contracts. I believed that collectively bargained contracts were sacrosanct, a playbook for the rules of the education “game.” I respected the bargaining process and participated from the management side of the table for many of my 18 years as a school principal. There were times, however, I felt the union contract was placing the interests of adults over the needs of students. I have always believed students must be the first priority as we allocate our scarce public funds.
It is interesting to note that today, all but one charter management organization in California (GreenDot), to my knowledge, is non-union. All charter schools received public funds and operate without union agreements. By contrast, all traditional California public school teachers are unionized through either the CTA or California Federation of Teachers.
What I said at last month’s special charter school board meeting is that I am not anti-union. I am against policies that do not put students first, such as current tenure laws and seniority-based layoff procedures. Too many times the extra-negotiated dollars are what I perceive as a gift of public funds. They are awarded for longevity and accrued units beyond a BA degree (traditionally called “step and column” increases) or advanced degrees that are not related to the work one is hired to perform.
Green Dot, a charter management organization headquartered in California, has pioneered the use of a “thin” contract. One was negotiated in 2009 by Green Dot and the United Federation of Teachers in New York, and renegotiated again two years ago. The “thin” contract gives the teachers a little less job security through changes for tenure and seniority-based layoffs language. In addition, teachers are paid more through evaluation systems that mirror Race to The Top protocols of value-added measures, which CTA has vehemently opposed.
Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.