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Blurring the Lines

Hi Stacey,

In your letter to me, you ended by writing “… I would love to hear how unions and charter schools co-exist in Denver.”

While I don’t pretend to be an expert on the teacher union in Denver, I do have some experience on the issue. (Over the past couple years, I worked for Denver Public Schools in its New Schools Office — now the Office of School Reform and Innovation — in various capacities including as executive director.) Long story short, out of the 30 or so charter schools in Denver, I am not sure any (maybe one) has a union presence. In fact, in Denver it is not obligatory that teachers in traditional public schools join the union, so in many schools there is quite a mix of teachers that are in the union and those that are not.

This being said, I think there are some really interesting things going on with collective bargaining agreements, and in some real ways there is a blurring of the lines between charter schools and traditional public schools. What has made this possible is a law that came on the books shortly before I got to Denver called the Innovation Schools Act of 2008. Here’s how the act describes itself:

The Innovation Schools Act is intended to improve student outcomes by supporting greater school autonomy and flexibility in academic and operational decision-making. The Act provides a means for schools and districts to gain waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements.

The Act allows a public school or group of public schools to submit an innovation plan to its school district board of education to implement innovations that result in improved student outcomes. Once approved, school district boards of education must submit the innovation plans and waiver requests to the Colorado State Board of Education for ratification.

One of the best examples of these Innovation Schools is the newly formed Denver Green School — a school I had a chance to work closely with while it was in its planning phase. Here’s what Jeff Buck — a veteran teacher and one of the nine “partners” that founded DGS — told me about the school and its relationship to teachers unions:

A couple of years ago, I, along with several other DPS teachers and administrators were working on developing new school proposals. I found myself in the company of 9 veteran educators who quickly and collectively came to understand our group as a partnership. We share an understanding of teaching not only as a profession, but also as a career. We see the future as important enough to devote our working lives to it. As we began to focus our school design process through the lens of systems thinking, it became clear that we needed to attend to the relationships between the parts of our system, not only teacher-student relationships but those between adults and between children as well.

We concluded that much of what everyone likes to argue about these days — union work rules and tenure, for example — represent attempts to mediate a frequently dysfunctional relationship, that between boss and worker. It dawned on us that a relatively flat, teacher-led, democratic organization either eliminated or radically changed that relationship at the Denver Green School. We created a system of governance and mutual accountability in which we feel safe and free to exercise our professional judgment, a feeling that allows us to focus on doing our best work with kids rather than the next random mandate. We ultimately decided to seek waivers of work rules and tenure, not because they present any impediment to what we want to do, but because we just don’t need them. They do not solve problems that we have.

DGS just opened a few months ago, and I think it is definitely a school to watch. There is no traditional principal. Instead, three teachers have stepped mostly out of the classroom to serve as “lead partners.” They share the work normally done by a principal and also work directly with students through implementation of Response to Intervention and service learning. New teachers hired as associate partners have a clear path toward full partnership. I think they’re onto something.

I think of the schools like DGS being very similar to conversion schools. They are schools that are committed to providing quality experiences to both the students and the adults in the school. They value aspects of the traditional collective bargaining agreement, but also see room for improvement. I would love to hear how you have modified the contract at Renaissance in ways that makes life better at school for both the children and the adults.


Marc Waxman is in his 17th year of work in urban education. Over that time Marc has been a Teach For America Corps Member, a teacher and administrator at KIPP Bronx, a teacher in the NYC public school system, the co-founder and co-director of a conversion charter school in Harlem, and the Executive Director of the Office of School Reform and Innovation at Denver Public Schools. Most recently, Marc has joined his wife Gianna Cassetta in starting a CMO supporting multiple elementary charter schools in Denver.

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