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By Julian Peeples

“IT’S AMAZING TO THINK about how few workplace protections we had before the contract,” says Hayden Gore, president of High Tech Education Collective (HTEC). “All of these things have contributed to a work environment that is more sustainable. The contract has transformed our working lives.”

Across the state, educators in charter schools are unionizing and organizing to win sustainable teaching and learning conditions at the bargaining table, building their locals from the ground up and fighting for first contracts that include foundational on-the-job rights and protections that most public school educators have the moment they are hired. Due to what is known as the “mega waiver,” the state’s more than 1,300 charter schools are exempt from many important sections of California Education Code —including the laws that guarantee basic rights and working conditions to all public school employees.

For years charter managers trumpeted flexibility and lack of regulation as the recipe for success for their students. But the mega waiver instead became a race to the bottom for charter school management organizations, creating separate classes of educators with vastly different rights and working conditions.

It’s a big part of what motivated educators at Downtown College Preparatory in San Jose to unionize in 2020. In the early months of COVID-19, teachers felt like they had no voice as school management decided what instruction would look like during a worldwide pandemic. The fight for each other and their students galvanized educators, who organized and formed South Bay Educators United (SBEU), the first teachers’ union in the country to organize during the pandemic.

SBEU President Nina Rodriguez

Nina Rodrigez, South Bay Educators United

SBEU President Nina Rodriguez says after the initial challenge of collecting cards and filing for union recognition during shelter-in-place orders, the first bargain was uncharted waters for educators and charter school management, who not only had to negotiate a contract but learn how to do so, together.

“We had to figure out ground rules and other things,” she says. “It took us more than one academic year to finalize — we were all learning together.”

When the ink dried on their first contract, SBEU members had won major victories in securing working hours and workload rights, as well as transparency in the school’s operations — one of the main factors driving educators to unionize initially. Rodriguez says the rights they won set much-needed boundaries for SBEU educators and is helping create a structure for the whole school network.

“Management knows what asks they can make of their teachers,” Rodriguez says. “This has created the biggest shift for educators, students and systemwide.”

Photo of Palmdale Teachers

Members of Palmdale Aerospace Teachers Association are in their 16th month of bargaining their first contract.

Members of Palmdale Aerospace Teachers Association (PATA) are in the 16th month of their first contract bargain, currently organizing to get charter management to take negotiations seriously. Lead site representative Daniel Lagomarsino says managers are doing everything they can to delay negotiations, dragging their feet on sharing financial information, copying and pasting articles from other school contracts into their proposals and generally stonewalling the process. While frustrating, the delays have only strengthened PATA’s resolve, as members prepare for impasse and potential job actions.

“Because we don’t have this contract, we’ve become a second class of teachers in our surrounding area,” Lagomarsino says, noting that 15% of teachers leave the school every year. “We’re making substantially less than nearby districts because of unpaid work. People really feel those life impacts and that’s what we’ve been rallying around to move this contract.”

Photo of River Charter Schools Teachers Association members

River Charter Schools Teachers Association members (from left) Mary Gomes, Katie Bauer and Kristina Del Moro


Last May, River Charter Schools Teachers Association (RCSTA) in Yolo County won its first-ever contract after 16 months of bargaining. President Mary Gomes says educators were committed to winning a contractually guaranteed voice, so no decisions could be made about educators without input from educators. Their solidarity netted huge wins in the first contract: basic job rights like those provided in Ed Code, guaranteed prep time, smaller class sizes, overage language for special education caseloads, and six weeks paid pregnancy leave.

“It’s such a monumental accomplishment,” Gomes says. “And it’s also a historic win for other charter teachers in the area and their organizations. We could be paving the way for others!”

At Environmental Charter Schools (ECS) in Los Angeles County, Environmental Educators United (EEU) members are currently bargaining their first contract. EEU Organizing Committee member Fabian Ponciano says members are focused on winning a contract that will help stem high teacher turnover. An ECS graduate in 2010, Ponciano remembers the impacts of chronic churn.

Environmental Educators United members

Environmental Educators United members are currently bargaining their first contract, focused on stemming chronic teacher turnover.

“I saw a lot of my great teachers leave. Now, being a teacher, I see there’s a lot of burden on us,” says Ponciano, a ninth grade science teacher. “A contract will mean so many of our teachers will be able to stay and support our students.”

In their fights for a unified voice for educators and students, these charter educators are drawing a line in the sand for the conditions that all school communities deserve — inspiring others to also take that stand. Teachers at Leadership Public Schools’ three campuses in the San Francisco Bay Area organized East Bay Educators United (EBEU) in 2020, winning their first contract and sending ripples through charter schools regionally. The victory had a palpable impact on their classified colleagues, who began organizing to join EBEU shortly after to win their own guaranteed rights, working conditions and voice on the job.

Starting their campaign in August, the 36 education support professionals became the newest members of the CTA family in late December when they were officially recognized as EBEU members.

“I never imagined we would go from zero to fully filed in a single semester, so it’s been a lot to take in. It’s a testament to our organizing committee,” says LaTonya Pye, EBEU Classified Organizing Committee member.  “I think people felt like they needed protection — and then also seeing what certificated EBEU members have accomplished. It’s been a huge blessing to see how much good has come out of this for our staff and students.”

HTEC President Hayden Gore and wife Lisa

HTEC President Hayden Gore with wife Lisa.

HTEC educators experienced a similar outbreak of inspiring solidarity across 16 High Tech High sites in San Diego County. Within a year of their historic first contract win, 300 High Tech High ESPs petition ed to join their 430-plus certificated siblings in HTEC, raising the total union size to more than 730 educators — one of the biggest charter school educators’ unions in the country.

“High Tech High has rhetorically committed itself as an equity project for years. They spoke the language of equity, we believed it, began to internalize it, and then demanded it,” says Gore. “I think we were held captive by this mythology taught to us by High Tech High that being at-will employees is what made us good. If we want justice for our children, we have to fight for just working conditions. All of our contract wins have contributed to a more sustainable work environment.


Snapshots From the Front Lines

Unite Summit

It took more than two years of bargaining for Unite Summit members to win their first contract in May 2021, according to Unite Summit Secretary-Treasurer Eric Jones. While it was a huge victory that many thought would never happen, Jones says educators have since had to battle “willful ignorance” by site administrators, fighting to ensure the contract is being respected.

Eric Jones, Unite Summit

Eric Jones, Unite Summit

With chronic teacher turnover where half of educators are leaving every year at some sites, Unite Summit is working hard to recruit and retain the quality educators their students deserve. Among major wins in their first contract: duty-free lunch and more supports to help students who are English learners, including professional development for educators and dedicated space at school sites.

“It gave us time and space for this to happen where previously there was none,” Jones says.

Unite Summit is now bargaining to negotiate the impacts of switching to a new learning management system and is gearing up to win more rights and resources in their successor contract.

“We’re going into this second contract wanting to lock down language,” Jones says. “We’ve got to fight for teachers and for resources that are going to keep them at our schools so our students can be successful.

High Tech Education Collective

In only a few short years, High Tech High educators won their union, grew it to more than 700 strong by welcoming the charter network’s classified employees, and won a historic first contract that will help stem chronic high turnover that impacts students and families. Through their efforts, HTEC members scored massive victories at the bargaining table: personal time, sick days that roll over and accrue, a 10% increase in the pay scale, retention bonuses and a contractual right to substitute teachers.

HTEC members during their rally

HTEC members took to the streets last October to rally for fair pay for all staff across High Tech High’s 16 sites.

“We never had a right to subs — we used to have to teach all day without breaks,” says HTEC President Hayden Gore, a sixth-grade humanities teacher. “If we want justice for our students, we have to fight for just working conditions.”

Gore says HTEC has built power across all 16 sites in San Diego County by organizing the old-fashioned way, one-on-one conversations in person and on the phone, making connections with each other and rising together to accomplish their shared goals.

“That’s our strength today,” Gore says. “It’s not that our social media is the best, or our website or emails. We’re strong about the relational aspects of our union and that builds real solidarity.”

South Bay Educators United

Educators at Downtown College Prep blazed trails in 2020, when they organized virtually and won their union, South Bay Educators United (SBEU). Then the tough work began, sitting at a bargaining table where everyone was learning on-the-fly how to negotiate. After a year, SBEU notched major victories for transparency in the charter school network’s finances and decision-making, as well as negotiating hours, workload and working conditions, and a guaranteed teacher voice on important issues.

“When sweeping changes are made without teacher input, it’s a gamble on how it will affect the learning community,” says Rodriguez, an instructional coach. “It was all reactive before, but now we can get ahead of it to minimize the harm to our community and maximize what has been effective.”

Bargaining is currently underway for an equity-based salary schedule as well as a fair evaluation process. SBEU is already tapping into the vast resources of the CTA family, collaborating with a member from Chula Vista Educators for ideas on creating their new evaluation process.

“That has saved us so much time and provided models, so we don’t have to start from scratch,” Rodriguez says.

River Charter Schools Teachers Association

Forming their union in late 2021 to create a better and more stable future for educators at River Charter Schools, RCSTA won their first contract in May 2023 that includes landmark victories like class-size reduction, guaranteed pregnancy leave and basic Ed Code rights. RCSTA President Mary Gomes says a lot has changed for educators in a short time, going from a place where management made decisions without transparency or teacher input to one where educators have a unified voice and a union contract.

“Now, we have an equal seat at the table for years to come,” says Gomes, a fifth grade teacher. “It’s hard to put into words what it means for us.”

Gomes says RCSTA’s victory is already having impacts for neighboring charter educators and their associations, raising the floor for working conditions and modeling how to fight and win. Next up for RCSTA: bargaining a successor contract and building a new legacy of respect in their schools.

“We’re looking forward to figuring out who we are as RCSTA and making sure our members know CTA is here to support us all,” Gomes says.

Environmental Educators United

Bargaining their first contract has been difficult for EEU members, as charter management continues to unnecessarily delay and drag out the process. EEU Organizing Committee member Fabian Ponciano says educators are looking to win rights and working conditions in their first contract that will help end a school culture that burns out young teachers and denies students the stability they deserve.

EEU's Fabian Ponciano

EEU’s Fabian Ponciano

“We want this to be a partnership. We have the same goals in mind — we want Environmental Charter Schools (ECS) to be a leader in education and be the best for our community,” says Ponciano.

EEU members are fighting to keep educators at ECS, focused on items like improved working conditions and longevity pay, as well as the resources students deserve to help meet their needs. Ponciano says that while that march has been slow, EEU members are keeping their eyes on the prize of a first contract.

“It is tough organizing and at times, it feels like we’re not making change — but we are,” he says. “It just takes time to make a difference. The momentum builds up and once we start moving, it’s hard to stop us.

Palmdale Aerospace Teachers Association

Bargaining for PATA’s first contract hasn’t been a smooth ride with difficult management, but that’s only serving to strengthen the resolve of educators fighting for better conditions for each other and their students. PATA members are building a movement to fight for the wages and working conditions they deserve. Educators at the K–12 Palmdale Aerospace Academy don’t currently have prep periods, haven’t had a pay increase in five years, and don’t earn tenure and permanent employment.

“Lately, everybody’s really committed and we’re moving in a unified way,” says Lagomarsino, who teaches history, AVID and yearbook.

Management’s unwillingness to take bargaining seriously has PATA on the verge of declaring impasse and preparing for the possibility of a strike if that’s what it takes to win their union contract.

“A union makes management listen,” Lagomarsino says. “I believe in democracy, and what we have here is a workplace democracy.

East Bay Educators United

Rodrigo Ventura, Reginald Finley and LaTonya Pye led the successful effort to organize ESPs and join EBEU

Rodrigo Ventura, Reginald Finley and LaTonya Pye

ESPs at Leadership Public Schools (LPS) said “Union Yes” and were officially acknowledged late last year as members of EBEU. LaTonya Pye, a career and community leadership coordinator at LPS Richmond, says ESPs had previously tried to organize unsuccessfully, but this time there seemed to be a strong sense of urgency that pushed them across the finish line.

With bad management and other issues causing high turnover, Pye says their EBEU team is preparing to survey members to develop priorities heading into their first-ever bargain. Among their top concerns: respect, safety, fair and competitive compensation, and job security. While Pye expects bargaining to start in spring, she says they are taking time to gather all member voices to ensure the process is inclusive.

“What is going to provide the best resources because ultimately, the goal is to serve the students in our community,” Pye says. “I’m new to this and there’s a lot to learn, but there’s so much power! This is just the beginning — we’re looking forward to many more wins!”

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