Teachers at the largest charter school organization in Los Angeles have launched a drive to unionize, a move that could alter the path of school reform in the city.
Charter schools, which are independently managed and publicly funded, have grown rapidly in Los Angeles, drawing students and funding from the school district. For the most part, their teachers are not unionized. That traditionally has put charters at odds with the teachers union.
Increasingly, charter organizations and the union are seen as political adversaries in charting the future of public schools.
A successful push by educators at the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools would hand an important victory to United Teachers Los Angeles as it struggles to reverse years of declining membership. The move could also pose a challenge to charters, which have been able to hire and fire staff without union rules — a key factor they believe helps provide the best instruction for students.
Nearly 70 teachers and counselors sent a letter Friday to the high-performing charter group, explaining their intention to partner with the teachers union. The letter asked for "a fair and neutral process" that would allow educators to organize without fear of retaliation.
"We believe that when teachers have a respected voice in policymaking it leads to school sustainability and teacher retention," said Elana Goldbaum, who teaches history at Gertz-Ressler High School, a member of the Alliance group. "We have a lot of talent and we want to see that stay. We want to see our teachers be a part of the decision-making and we want to advocate for our students and ourselves."
Unionizing would require majority support from the 500-plus teachers and counselors at the Alliance schools. The educators who sent the letter Friday also launched a website and asked colleagues to join them.
In a statement, leaders of the 11,000-student charter group said that they would not stop the teachers from pursuing union affiliation.
"We acknowledge the rights of our teachers to undertake this effort. We also recognize that our teachers are under no obligation to participate," said the statement from President and Chief Executive Judy Burton and incoming President and Chief Executive Dan Katzir.
Aside from calling for a greater voice in decisions that affect teaching, the instructors said their main priorities include teacher retention, small class sizes, due process rights, budget transparency and fair evaluations and compensation.
A group of Alliance teachers interviewed at UTLA headquarters Friday evening said that instructors should feel free to make proposals they believe would aid students without worrying about job security.
"I may have an idea to improve instruction for my students but there is this general sense of 'I don't know whether I should say it or how it will be received,'" said Oliver Aguirre, who teaches at Alliance Susan & Eric Smidt Technology High School.
Another instructor, Sam Taylor Jr., who teaches at Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy 7, said that job security would help retain teachers.
"I want teachers to see this as a career, not a steppingstone," Taylor said.
Goldbaum said she hopes Alliance leaders will "see the benefit in working together, and I think they will."
Only 7% of charter schools were unionized nationally as of 2012, according to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that supports charters.
Although some California charter schools have formed unions, most resist collective bargaining. The conflict between unions and charters also is playing out in the elections for seats on the Los Angeles Board of Education.
California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates, a political action committee, is trying to unseat incumbent Bennett Kayser, the union's biggest ally on the seven-member board. In another race, UTLA is seeking to oust incumbent Tamar Galatzan, a strong supporter of charter schools. Both incumbents face runoff elections in May.
United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl said it was no secret that the union wants to help organize charter school teachers.
About 1,000 of UTLA's more than 31,000 members work in charter schools, Caputo Pearl said.
Charters have been increasing in Los Angeles at a rapid pace. Currently, more than 100,000 students, or 15% of L.A. Unified School District enrollment, attend charters, the most of any school system in the nation.
The group of Alliance educators "have enough of a critical mass now, across enough schools, among enough influential teacher leaders," Caputo-Pearl said. "The next step in the process is to be able to speak about this openly and decide where the larger group of teachers wants to go around this question."
Alliance has 26 middle and high school campuses, located in mostly minority neighborhoods with traditionally lower performing schools. Alliance has received large donations from some of the biggest philanthropists in the city, including more than $6 million from Eli Broad in 2007 to help expand the group. Former Mayor Richard Riordan is among the city leaders who sit on Alliance's board of directors.