legal showdown

After explosive allegations of anti-union intimidation, KIPP files a federal lawsuit against the UFT

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio with KIPP co-founder David Levin at KIPP Infinity Middle School.

A dispute between one of the city’s most visible charter networks and the country’s largest local teachers union sparked a federal lawsuit this week, with KIPP asking the courts to block the union from enforcing its contract at a South Bronx charter school.

The argument centers on KIPP Academy Charter School, the first of the network’s schools to open in the city, and whether it is covered by the contract between the city and the United Federation of Teachers.

KIPP’s lawsuit comes after explosive allegations from the UFT, which argued in January that the school threatened to fire teachers who didn’t vote to decertify the union — a case that is being considered by the National Labor Relations Board. (A previous decertification effort, in 2009, was unsuccessful.)

Most charter schools are not unionized — a feature, many operators argue, that is essential for sidestepping burdensome rules that get in the way of offering a sound education. But KIPP Academy is a “conversion” charter school, an unusual arrangement in which a traditional public school morphs into a charter. The UFT argues that under state law its conversion status means its staff is covered by the contract that governs traditional public schools.

KIPP’s lawsuit, on the other hand, argues that its teachers never voted for union representation, and before now “other than collecting union dues from KIPP teachers and staff, the UFT never carried out any representative functions in relation to them.”

Since the school’s founding over 16 years ago, according to the complaint, the UFT never objected to the salaries and scheduling arrangements that have existed at the school for years and which are obviously inconsistent with the union contract.

KIPP’s lawsuit stems from a laundry list of contract violations brought by the UFT, and the union’s insistence that those complaints be heard by an arbitrator. Union officials said the complaints were motivated by a group of staff members who raised objections to their working conditions.

“Our day runs from 7:20 in the morning to 5:15 in the afternoon, so we’re there for nine hours and 55 minutes a day, and most of the time, there are no breaks,” KIPP Academy teacher Fatima Wilson, one of the teachers who approached the union, told the American Prospect.

The dispute has already been to court once: Last year, a state judge refused to block the arbitration process, a partial victory for the UFT.

The union’s general counsel, Adam Ross, said in a statement that KIPP’s lawsuit amounted to “legal maneuvers” instead of “working with the union to address their employees’ legitimate concerns.”

The charter network is now asking the federal court to step in and keep the UFT from enforcing its contract. In a letter to its staff earlier this week, KIPP superintendent Jim Manly implied that the lawsuit is needed to ensure the school can continue to foster teacher growth and collaboration.

“We are continuing to argue that KIPP Academy always has had, and wants to maintain, the right to solve problems together — without outside interference,” he wrote.

Correction: This story has been changed to clarify the intent of KIPP’s lawsuit. While the dispute itself does center on the UFT’s right to represent KIPP teachers, the lawsuit itself is focused on a narrower point: whether arbitration regarding the collective bargaining agreement should be allowed to proceed.

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.