Legislature Orders Audit of LA Charter Chain for Spending Taxpayer Funds to Block Union Drive
A special committee of the California Legislature has ordered the state auditor to investigate Los Angeles’ largest charter school chain and the state’s charter school trade association for a series of union-busting and privacy breaching actions taken during 2015 to stop a teacher-led union drive at the franchise.
The Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC), composed of members of the Assembly and Senate, voted 8-3 Wednesday to authorize the audit of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, which has 11,000 students in 27 schools. The audit comes after a Los Angeles County Court issued a temporary restraining order against the taxpayer-funded but privately run school to stop its anti-union actions, which include not only intimidating and threatening teachers but also working with the California Charter School Association (CCSA) to recruit parents and alumni to fight the union drive.
“Alliance schools are publicly funded,” said State Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, who requested the audit committee take up the issue. “The purpose of those funds is to educate children inside the classroom—not to intimidate teachers and parents.”
The chain has received hundreds of millions in public funds. How much was spent fighting the union drive, including hiring consultants, legal fees, producing media, running phone banks and other outreach activities will be investigated by the state’s auditor. Similarly, how CCSA acquired the names and contact information of the students’ and alumni family members, and the policies related to sharing that information outside classroom-related settings, will also be investigated.
“It’s a shame that Alliance management has put so many resources into fighting the school community, instead of working together to do what’s best for our students,” said Rosalba Naranjo, a parent of students at Alliance Richard Merkin Middle School. “The legislators did the right thing today. We need to know if administrators are using public money to attack us, instead of putting resources where they belong—in the classroom to help out schools.”
The timetable for the state audit is not yet known.
The legislative action on Wednesday will likely expand an already detailed and damaging record of anti-union activities by Alliance. In March 2015, when teachers and counselors at the chain began a unionization campaign—which is legal under state labor law—the charter school chain responded with aggressive tactics, including illegal surveillance, interference with union meetings, phone calls to parents attacking teachers involved in the campaign, blocking teacher emails and retaliation against organizers.
The teachers organizing the drive filed a series of legal complaints with the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which is charged with enforcing state labor laws including the right to organize a union. Following its review, PERB attorneys filed four unfair labor practice complaints against Alliance. As that litigation proceeded, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfont issued two restraining orders that put a halt to the anti-union actions. The restraining orders are still in place and will not be rescinded until all the complaints and legal appeals are exhausted.
What the teachers at Alliance want is for the charter chain’s management to sit down with them and start working under the umbrella of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, as opposed to fighting them in court and bringing the controversy before legislators. But because Alliance is one of the state’s largest charter chains, the California Charter School Association—which is strongly anti-union—has a big stake in the outcome, which undoubtedly is why it became so involved in fighting Alliance educators' effort to join the city teachers’ union.
This fight is a classic example of charter schools wanting to have it both ways and shows the peril of privatizing K-12 public education, where charter schools operate as a parallel world inside the traditional public school system. Alliance, like most charter chains, says its schools are public when it comes to taking taxpayer per-pupil dollars and claiming other public perks, such as multi-millions of dollars in government-backed bonds for real estate deals. But then it says it needs to run like a private corporation and should be exempt from other state laws, including upholding public employees' right to unionize.
All of that is in play in Los Angeles with the ongoing union drive at Alliance, which also happens to represent the largest charter school teacher organizing campaign in U.S. history.