A lack of teacher voice is a problem in the charter sector, where only one in eight charter schools is unionized and teacher turnover is high. But some charter schools have broken the barrier and are providing a way for teachers to collaborate and have a seat at the table when it comes to making school decisions.

Charter schools that empower teachers do exist, and they offer strategies that other schools could adopt. One example is Amber Charter School, a K-5 school located in East Harlem, and their use of a “thin contract.”

Amber Charter School was one of the first charter schools in New York City and the state of New York as a whole. The school was built on a foundation of a strong character program and Spanish instruction, with their founding leaders being very supportive of unions.

When the teachers at Amber reached the end of their first year, they joined the district union for New York City Public Schools to create a collective bargaining agreement that was exclusive to their charter school.

Amber developed a “thin contract,” which is much shorter than a typical union contract. Amber’s contract is now about twenty pages, compared to the two-hundred-page New York City district contract.

Thin contracts can be a flexible option for both school districts and charter schools.

“It seems to be a good balance. I don’t feel like, oh my gosh we have this two hundred page contract where everything’s like, cross the T’s and dot the I’s. Whereas you get some contracts that are so flimsy it’s almost like not having one,”  stated Kathleen McCann, a fourth grade teacher/team leader at Amber Charter School.

“It’s kind of like that nice middle ground where you still have flexibility to address stuff as it comes up.”

With thin contracts, teachers and administrators are able to gain protection and clarity on important issues, such as compensation and employment, while having the opportunity to adapt to the changing demands of the workplace without formal negotiations. While there still may be issues that arise that must involve negotiations, the use of a thin contract makes it easier to work out quick solutions to the problems.

This balance of protection and flexibility can be an excellent fit for charter schools leaders and teachers.

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.