Charter schools often tout their “innovation,” the enterprising spirit they bring to public education. Can they also spur unions to innovate?
A new organizing victory at a controversial “cyberschool” offers lessons on how the labor movement fits in the brave new world of “virtual classrooms.” Hundreds of teachers at Agora Cyber Charter school voted overwhelmingly to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) in May. The social workers and family coaches are also in the process of a union election, following the unionization of staff counselors.
One of Pennsylvania’s largest charters, with some 8,500 online students, Agora has for years been wracked by mismanagement and instability. Unionization is giving the teachers, who work remotely through digital networks, a collective voice in a virtual workplace.
Unions are rare in charter schools, which are generally publicly funded but run by for-profit firms with a start-up mentality that is unfriendly to labor. In addition to breaking new ground by organizing Agora teachers and support staff, teachers at Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School have also unionized with PSEA.
For science teacher Melissa Hoffman-Long, who worked with the early organizing committees, what initially drove teachers to organize was a realization among staff that, while charters touted “cutting edge” programs, there was “incongruity between the for-profit business model and the public mission of a school…. We felt like having a union would help balance out and give the staff a united voice when shady things started going down.”
Shadiness has tainted Agora’s virtual schooling model for years. Founder Dorothy June Hairston Brown and other Agora executives were indicted in 2012 on more than 60 federal charges, including financial fraud, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. The alleged fraud amounted to $6.5 million at three different taxpayer-supported Pennsylvania charters.
Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charters are notorious underachievers, long criticized for lacking public oversight, producing abysmal standardized test scores and maintaining lax grading standards and chronically poor student attendance in virtual classes. On the state’s annual School Performance Profile, Agora has scored below 50 points, out of a passing grade of 70, for the past three years.