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Could KIPP unionization pave a new path for teacher tenure?

There are a lot of questions floating around about the KIPP schools’ unionization, which, according to two major players, was a surprise even to Dave Levin, KIPP’s cofounder and the superintendent of New York City KIPP schools. People are guessing at exactly how high is turnover at KIPP AMP. (Levin told me this morning that he doesn’t know the exact data but promised to get back to me.) They’re wondering whether more elite charter schools will unionize next. (Open question, though charter teachers across the city were contacted about joining up with the union last year.)

The most important thing to follow, I think, is what kind of labor contract the KIPP teachers end up negotiating. How will the contract handle job protection? Will it go the extreme route of a virtual job for life, or will it allow for discrimination between effective and ineffective teachers? If it does the latter, what will be the definition of an “effective” teacher?

I got some hints of what’s to come — or at least what the union wants — in a conversation with Randi Weingarten, the union president, yesterday. Weingarten said she is not in favor of offering “tenure” that means a “job for life.” Instead, she said that a contract should force administrators to prove that they have “just cause” before they let an employee go. “Just cause” can mean the extreme case of, say, having sex with a student. Weingarten said that it can also mean the trickier matter of incompetence.

Here’s how Weingarten explained “just cause” to me:

Tenure has been interpreted very, very differently. But it shouldn’t be. Tenure was never intended to be a job for life. Tenure is supposed to be a process, due process, so that you promote excellence and you guide against arbitrariness.

What this sounds a lot like is the contract that Green Dot charter school teachers have in Los Angeles, finding a sweet spot between the extreme of so much job protection that bad teachers stay in the profession and so little that teachers feel constantly threatened. Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot (and of Rock the Vote!), calls this the “third way” in school reform. Weingarten has already signaled her interest in the Third Way by working with Green Dot to open a new charter school in the Bronx this year. The partnership upset some union members who worry it doesn’t provide enough job protection, but won Weingarten cred among next-generation reform-types.

The work of actually hammering out a revolutionary kind of contract will likely be trickier than simply preaching love for it. Levin this morning would not talk in any detail about what kind of contract he wants to see, other than saying that he is glad to have a “great working relationship with the union.” Meanwhile, the Bronx Green Dot charter school teachers have been working for five months now – without a labor contract. Weingarten and Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot, told me it’s still being hammered out.

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