Math teacher Mark Quirk and his fellow teachers at Benjamin Franklin High School (BFHS) wanted a voice. After years of working under a principal who side-stepped faculty perspectives in administrative decision-making, the teachers at this New Orleans charter school decided to take action.
“We wanted fairness, and we wanted transparency,” Quirk said.
Earlier this year, teachers at the school voted to unionize, and as of this September, contract negotiations are underway.
Teacher unions and charter schools are not common bedfellows—particularly in New Orleans. Charter schools pride themselves on granting administrators and faculty members the freedom to test out nontraditional teaching methods and styles, some of which challenge state teaching requirements set out by unions and conventional public schools. Moreover, many educational reformers have demonized unions for protecting bad teachers, while praising the charter model that hires teachers on an at-will basis or on annual contracts.
Today, only about 7 percent of charter schools nationwide are unionized. In New Orleans, which is set to become the nation’s first all-charter school district, there has been virtually no teacher union presence since Hurricane Katrina, after which the school board laid off 7,000 teachers and declined to bargain collectively with the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), the local teacher union.
But, for Quirk and his coworkers, enough was enough.
While a few BFHS teachers had individually joined UTNO after Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t until the principal fired a few good teachers in the middle of the summer four years in a row and paid some experienced teachers below the published pay scale, while rewarding others with higher salaries, that the movement grew.
“There were a lot of things that just weren’t right about the way our school was being run,” Quirk, who is going into his twenty-first year of teaching and ninth year at BFHS, commented.
Momentum grew when the principal tried to fire a veteran Latin teacher and the teacher successfully called upon the union to represent him in negotiation.
“We all need to band together and have our voices heard,” Quirk said. “We respect the fact that there is an administration that makes the hard decisions on many things, that’s fine, but at least listen to us.”
BFHS, consistently ranked among the best secondary schools in New Orleans, serves over 900 young people and employs about fifty full-time educators.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the school was a magnet school that drew the best public school students together for a college preparatory curriculum. After the August 2005 storm, the city government planned to shut down the school but the then-principal insisted on re-opening and applied to the city for a charter. The school was opened in January 2006, just a few months after the storm decimated the city.
Today, BFHS is just the second charter in New Orleans to make the leap to unionization—following Morris Jeff Community School, where teachers formed a union in 2013.
“Some of our teachers feared this would split the faculty, and it really hasn’t,” Quirk said, noting that 85 percent of teachers signed the unionization petition last spring. According to Quirk, even the current principal and board were, at least publicly, initially supportive after recognizing the widespread consensus among faculty and students that unionization was necessary. The immediate goals of the union include equalizing the pay scale, creating a measure of job security, and building structures that give teachers some voice in making policy at the school.
“We are trying to build structures that include us when major decisions are made,” Quirk said.
“The flexibility of management [in a charter school] . . . can be a good thing, you don’t have to follow all those rules and you can innovate and you can try new things and see if it works, but the flip side of that is arbitrary decision-making and principals that can be unconstrained and do whatever they want,” Quirk added. “The outcome of this process could give teachers more flexibility and voice in how things operate. It will constrain this or any future principal somewhat, in that decisions can’t just be made by one person all the time. There has to be some sort of, not approval by teachers, but teachers being listened to on important things.”
“We, the people in our union at Franklin, believe that teacher voice is a good thing for fairness and transparency,” Quirk concluded, “and if that idea catches on it can only improve our school and perhaps other schools in our mostly charter school system.”