One idea behind charter schools is that they operate with few outside restrictions. They can play around with curriculum, the structure of the school day and staffing. Teachers unions tend to create restrictions on things like hours and duties in order to protect the people who work in schools.
Morris Jeff Community School is the first charter school in Louisiana to form a teachers union that’s recognized by the school’s board. In fact, at Morris Jeff the very term teachers union has a whole new meaning.
Tiana Nobile teaches first grade at Morris Jeff Community School and is co-president of the Morris Jeff Association of Educators, which is the official union of teachers at Morris Jeff.
“We’re all here because we want to be,” says Nobile. “I think we all really love the community that we’re a part of.”
“Yeah,” chimes in Rowan Shafer, a 4th grade teacher at Morris Jeff and the other co-president of Morris Jeff Association of Educators. “I was waiting for Morris Jeff to have a 4th grade so I could apply here.”
Nobile and Shafer say the staff at Morris Jeff has great relationships with each other and the principal. They collaborate, brainstorm and hash out questions together. But what about one day when there’s a new principal? And new teachers? They wanted to create a formal process for teachers to have a voice.
“We didn’t form the union in response to a grievance or a complaint,” says Nobile. “This was because we wanted to help make our school great.”
“And we truly believe that teacher voice is part of making a great school greater,” Shafer adds.
Aesha Rasheed is the Vice President of the Morris Jeff Community School Board and the editor of the New Orleans Parents Guide to Public Schools.
“From where as I sit as a board member, the attractiveness of having a teachers’ union — having an organized body and voice — is that we have a way to formally get feedback from all of the teachers and staff in the school, and that doorway that it’s open,” Rasheed says.
Rasheed helped found the school, and she says the vision for Morris Jeff always included teacher voices. She says the union is a natural development of that goal since new staff, who weren’t there from the beginning, are hired every year. And hopefully will be, for years and years to come.
“I really was excited about the idea of the teachers coming to a place where they wanted to form a formal organization, a union,” says Rasheed. “We’re building an institution that we certainly hope lasts and flourishes for many, many years.”
“This could either be kind of a Pandora’s box situation or it could be a terrific opportunity,” says Rick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington DC. “The jury is very much out.”
“It’s a terrific opportunity for teachers to think differently about a union, and to really approach it as support for professionalism and a flexible but fair model of school management,” says Hess. "Or it risks bringing back into charter schools all of the same frustrations and bitterness that have often emerged in school districts. I’m hopeful it will be the first."
Hess says that the promise of charter schools, from the very beginning, was to create schools operating under fewer restrictions. Traditional schools, often tied to large school systems, lacked flexibility.
“So when you’ve got school districts that are educating 10,000 students or 20,000, you wind up needing rules. And in order to protect the professionals in those schools, teacher unions generally try to make sure that they have consistent policies in place,” he says.
Policies about how teachers are evaluated and paid, how many minutes they have to work a day, how many days they work in a year.
“But if you do that too aggressively, you very quickly make charter schools start to feel and run a lot like bigger school districts,” says Hess. “And frankly, if charter schools don’t have much flexibility to operate, it’s not clear why they would offer anything other than what traditional district schools offer.”
“It’s so much more nuanced than the black and white: 'are you pro- or anti-unions,” says Aesha Rasheed.
“We’re going to use this tool to be the way that we hear teacher voice," she says. "I mean, another school might be using a different process and that’s great. That’s fine. But this is what we’re going to embark on and what we’re doing.”
Tiana Nobile, co-president of Morris Jeff Association of Educators, says New Orleans’ strong history with unions is helping her and her colleagues understand what roles they can play together.
“I think that union gets a bad name," she says. "But what is union? It’s a group of folks collectively getting together and having a voice, and that’s exactly what our goal is, and that’s what we’re working towards. And at the crux of it is the success of our kids. We’re all here because we want our kids to learn and to be successful and to grow.”
And by formally taking part in the school’s larger conversations, that’s exactly what these unionized teachers aim to do.