Beyond rebuilding: Organizing charter schools in New Orleans

Education policymakers all remember when the public schools in New Orleans shut down. It was after Hurricane Katrina, and it wasn’t just that the buildings were flooded and ruined; even when the city began to resurface, the schools were never the same. The entire education system famously converted to all charter schools.

UTNO charter schools
UTNO then and now.

But the union, United Teachers of New Orleans, stuck with educators through it all, even when their schoolhouse doors closed and their UTNO chapters dissolved. UTNO educators worked together to navigate layoffs, adjust to new work lives, find resources for their classrooms and support one another through recovery. And today, six of the city’s schools—now charter schools—have UTNO chapters once more.

UTNO has always been a fearless and trailblazing organization: A majority-Black union that led the way to education justice during the 1930s, it is now making significant inroads for workers’ rights in charter schools, considered by many an unlikely home for union power.

“I’m invested in the future of our union,” says Grace Lomba, an UTNO member and leader since the mid-1960s. “I’m interested in seeing how what we have done in the past can influence what people in the union are doing today.” Noting that UTNO has been a powerhouse for years, she adds, “When we had our 85th anniversary celebration, people were able to see that we are still here; we honor our past and look toward the future.”

As this union movement grows, says UTNO President Dave Cash, a technology teacher at the Rooted School, “This will be a way for us to have a sense of collective power. We’ll be able to lean on each other to make sure we get working conditions that we and our students deserve.”

Organizing charter school educators

Most AFT educators work in public schools, but educators are educators, and they deserve the benefit of belonging to a union wherever they work. In that regard, AFT charter school unions are the same as any other union.

But they are also different. To begin with, charter schools operate independently from elected school boards, and they don’t have to follow the same rules traditional public schools do about providing universal access, equitable environments, and fair treatment of workers and students. Charter advocates have long argued that this gives them more freedom to experiment; but in the wrong hands, that freedom can harm students and educators alike.

“Having a union contract means a check on total charter autonomy,” says Cash—the only check on charters in New Orleans.

The city does have an elected school board, but its reach is limited. Each school has a different set of “bosses” with whom workers build relationships and, if they are unionized, bargain. Hiring and firing is up to independent charter school boards. Rules for admission, curriculum and even teacher pay are different at different schools, and systems can be less transparent than at conventional public schools.

Although there are no universal standards, one thing is the same for those with an UTNO chapter: Union educators have a voice. They have collective power. They can use their experience to help guide school policies. They can negotiate legally binding contracts. In short, they can play a pivotal role in securing the best learning and working environments for their students and themselves.

The union difference

“There are issues as far as accountability for charter schools, because we are governed by unelected boards,” Brittany Scofield, a music teacher at Bricolage Academy and a member of the UTNO chapter there, told Discourse Blog in 2021, just before her school unionized. “A lot of times those people have no experience in education. … They don't know our students, they don't know our schools, they don’t go to our classrooms, but they have a lot of authority over the decisions that are made.” That’s why Scofield helped organize her union.

Now an official UTNO chapter, Bricolage Academy Educators United has already addressed concerns such as cuts to parental leave and retirement contributions, and had early plans to advocate for salary increases, job security, protection against retaliation or discrimination, and more generous paid time off and family leave policies.

At Morris Jeff Community School, the first New Orleans charter to unionize in 2013, the latest contract establishes joint committees, including one on diversity, equity and inclusion, so that educators are guaranteed a voice in policymaking. It solidifies pay increases for early childhood educators and raises for paraeducators, and prioritizes teacher certification.

At Benjamin Franklin High School, a new contract establishes maximum student and course loads. “When our classes are overenrolled or we have to take on extra preps, we get paid more,” says Rebecca Cavalier, an English teacher there. “Now everyone has to be treated fairly, and we can focus on what we love doing: teaching.”

At each of the UTNO chapters, union basics are in place, says Cash: things like due process, grievance procedures, nondiscrimination clauses and labor-management committees. And everyone gets the “peace of mind” knowing there are rules that both staff and management must follow. “For any worker, for any contract, you get a sense of certainty or safety,” says Cash.

A history of equity

Along with charter school chapters and contract wins, UTNO celebrated a big anniversary this year: 85 years of education unionism in New Orleans. A big part of that history is a commitment to racial justice in schools.

The year the union was founded, 1937, the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, and Jim Crow was very much the law of the land. Black children went to segregated schools with 17 percent less funding than white schools. Black teachers with 10 years’ experience were paid just $1,440 a year, compared with $2,200 for white teachers. To add salt to that wound, when the district restored pay to pre-Depression levels (after having cut it across the board in the early 1930s), it restored pay only for white teachers—not their Black colleagues. Teachers of both races protested and petitioned the school board for equal pay, to no avail.

And so AFT Local 527 was born.

Preceded by the New Orleans chapter of the Louisiana Colored Teachers Association and built on a legacy of Black people fighting for freedom, the predominantly Black Local 527 later went on to include the majority white Orleans Educators Association in 1972, welcoming OEA under its own charter and leadership. “Teachers in New Orleans provided the city and state with a powerful image of what integration should really be about in the Jim Crow South and its aftermath,” the union recounts in its history. “Not black folks petitioning to enter white institutions but white citizens agreeing to join historically and predominantly black organizations and building solidarity and respect in that process.”

UTNO continues its fight for equity and high-quality public education for all children, regardless of ZIP code, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status—and regardless of whether the schools where children learn and educators teach are conventional public schools or charters.

“As a longtime union member and second-generation union activist, I know that being unionized protects the interests of educators and students alike,” says Lorena Craighead, an English teacher at International High School of New Orleans. “I know our united voice will continue to empower the future.”

[Virginia Myers]