Charter Schools: 'Public Employees or Private Workers, Our Teachers Can't Unionize'

However teachers at charter schools are classified, the schools and their advocates are determined to keep them from unionizing.

Photo Credit: In These Times

In May 2016, teachers at International High School (IHS)—a charter school in New Orleans—voted 26-18 in favor of forming a union. Yet more than a year later, school administrators are still refusing to bargain, insisting that the teachers do not fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. (There is no statewide collective bargaining law for public school teachers in Louisiana.) In February 2017, the NLRB voted 2-1 against IHS’s challenge, concluding that the teachers are indeed private workers under their purview rather than public employees.

Yet IHS, still refusing to bargain, is now taking its case to the Fifth Circuit—the first time a federal appellate court will rule on such a challenge. The outcome of this suit could affect labor law for charter teachers not only at IHS, but throughout all the Fifth Circuit states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Last summer the NLRB issued two decisions concluding that charter school teachers are private employees. In both cases, the NLRB ruled that charters were “private corporation[s] whose governing board members are privately appointed and removed,” and were neither “created directly by the state” nor “administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate.” The NLRB found that a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor, since governments provide the funds but do not create or control the schools.

These two decisions were important because they helped clarify whether charter school teachers fall under the legal jurisdiction of their state’s labor boards (which only exist in those states that have enacted laws granting public employees collective bargaining rights) or the NLRB. Charter operators have been known to challenge efforts to unionize under either jurisdiction, depending on which board their staff petitioned for the right to unionize.

To make its determination, the NLRB relied on NLRB v. Natural Gas Utility District of Hawkins County, a 1971 Supreme Court case where the justices found Hawkins County to be “political subdivision”—and therefore public—by looking to see if it was created directly by the state, or administered by individuals responsible to public officials or the general electorate. Applying this “Hawkins test” to charter schools, the NLRB concluded in 2016 that the publicly-funded privately managed schools do not qualify as political subdivisions.

But IHS (represented in court as Voices for International Business and Education, Incorporated) argues that the NLRB’s previous charter school rulings are not applicable to them, citing specific characteristics of Louisiana’s charter school law, and the unique reality that nearly all public schools in New Orleans are charters.

In court filings, IHS says it should be considered a political subdivision under the “Hawkins test” because their charter school is closely regulated by Louisiana, and has a board of directors that can be removed by state officials. Moreover, IHS says that since the overwhelming majority of public school students attend charters, this demonstrates that “[IHS] is a public school functioning as a political subdivision of Louisiana” since the state is obligated to provide public education.

IHS also makes a few arguments beyond the Hawkins test, such as saying that exempting the school from the NLRB’s jurisdiction “honors congressional purpose” because it would ensure that “vital public services like education are not disrupted by labor disputes.”

Although IHS is focusing specifically on its own school within the context of New Orleans, charter operators throughout the Fifth District have also weighed in to support IHS’s case. The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the Texas Charter Schools Association filed an amici curiae urging the federal court to find all public charter schools in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi exempt from the NLRB’s jurisdiction. According to the legal brief, Louisiana has 146 charter schools, enrolling 84,000 students, Texas has 761 charter schools, serving 315,000 students, and Mississippi has three charter schools, enrolling 400 students.

But which side of the public-or-private controversy charter schools come down on seems to vary with political geography.

But which side of the public-or-private controversy charter schools come down on seems to vary with political geography. While in the IHS case, the state charter associations insist that all charter schools should be considered political subdivisions (and therefore public) under the “Hawkins test,” when charter teachers at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy filed for union representation with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board in 2010, the school responded by saying its teachers fell under the purview of the NLRB, because their charter was a privately incorporated nonprofit, governed by a corporate board. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the most prominent national charter advocacy organization, filed an amicus briefin support of CSMA’s position, arguing that “charter schools are intended to be and usually are run by corporate entities that are administered independently from the state and local governments in which they operate."

The difference, of course, is that in Illinois, a state where public employees have collective bargaining rights, charter teachers will more likely be able to win unionization campaigns as public employees. In Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, where most public employees have no such rights, a court ruling that the teachers are public employees and not under the jurisdiction of the NLRB will mean that management is under no legal obligation to enter into bargaining with them.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools did not return The American Prospect’s request for comment on the IHS case and how it relates to the Alliance’s CSMA brief.

If IHS’S arguments succeed in court, there are a number of different ways the Fifth Circuit could rule. At its narrowest, the appellate court could say that this particular charter school does not fall under the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Going a bit further, the court may instead say that the NLRB does not apply to this type of charter school; Louisiana has five different categories of charters, and IHS is designated a “Type 2” school. The Fifth Circuit could go even broader, ruling that no charter school in the state of Louisiana falls under the NLRB’s purview. Or at its most broad, the appellate court could rule that no charter in the entire Fifth Circuit (Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) falls under the NLRB’s jurisdiction, which is what the state-level charter groups are pushing for.

When courts have overturned an NLRB ruling, they have generally tended to tailor their decision narrowly. Still, the Fifth Circuit is hardly a left-leaning court, so it’s hard to predict how the judges might rule.

Legal battles aside, many of the teachers who voted for the union in May 2016 no longer work at IHS, citing harassment and intimidation they experienced during the subsequent school year.

One teacher, Chvonne Simmons, left IHS at the end of May, after teaching science there for four years. “I was not offered a contract to return, and it blew me away because the year before I was the science department chair,” she says. Simmons felt the 2016-17 academic year was very hostile, and she believes that union-supportive teachers were singled out for punishment. “In all my years of teaching and my years at IHS I had never been written up, and all of a sudden I was getting in trouble,” she says.

Another pro-union teacher, Jennifer Boyce, left IHS on her own last month, saying she had felt targeted, and ostracized. “After voting ‘yes’ for the union I was written up three times, after having taught for 13 years and never receiving a corrective action,” she told me.

There is no statewide collective bargaining law for public school teachers in Louisiana, but collective bargaining is still legal (unlike in other southern states such as Texas and North Carolina). Some public school teachers in Louisiana—such as in St. Tammany Parish and Jefferson Parrish—have negotiated contracts, but that’s because there were union-friendly school boards willing to do so. There is nothing in state law that can compel a Louisiana school board to bargain if it doesn’t want to.

So in some ways, charter school teachers in Louisiana actually have more legal protections right now than traditional public school teachers, since falling under the NLRB’s purview means the federal labor board can compel schools to bargain with unions. If IHS wins its court, charter teachers at that school, and perhaps across the state, would still be allowed to bargain contracts, but would no longer have the federal labor board’s help in compelling their employer to do so. In other words, it gets a lot harder.

A representative from International High School told The American Prospect they do not have any comment, as the court case is open. 

“On the surface, this case is about an arcane question of federal agency jurisdiction; in reality, it is about union busting, plain and simple,” says Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and I am hopeful that the court sees through the administration’s bullying and acknowledges the educators’ right to bargain a fair and flexible contract, just as their peers have done at hundreds of other charter schools in New Orleans and around the country.”

It will be several months before the Fifth Circuit issues its decision.

Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a former American Prospectwriting fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @rmc031.

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