A Case of Unusual Bedfellows in Los Angeles: A Teachers Union for Charter Schools

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Steve Barr is shaking things up in Los Angeles luring both students and teachers from troubled high schools. Barr is the founder of a charter school provider, a Green Dot Public Schools, and while most charter school pioneers dissuade their teachers from unionizing, Barr's taken a more appropriate approach coming from a former fundraiser for the California Democratic Party. After being initially rebuffed when reaching out to the city's largest teacher's union and affiliate of both the AFT and NEA, United Teachers Los Angeles, Barr and his Green Dot teachers formed Asociacion de Maestros Unidos, an NEA affiliate. Now, the AMU and Green Dot are working hand-in-hand to break up the city's mammoth-sized high schools.

And what kind of deal is Barr's renegade union offering its teachers? AMU's svelte, 33-page contract provides for salaries that are 10 percent above LAUSD's salaries, teacher input into school policy and curriculum, and flexibility to adjust the contract over time. It does not, however, grant teachers tenure or offer preferences based on seniority. Progressive unionism at its best.

The UTLA's president, A.J. Duffy, acknowledged that his union missed the opportunity to work with Green Dot: "They started with one charter school, now have 10, and in short order they'll have 20 schools in Los Angeles, with all the teachers paying dues to a different union. And that's a problem."

In addition to founding 10 charter high schools in the city's poorest and roughest neighborhoods (he has approval for 10 more thanks in part to a $7.3 million grant from the Gates Foundation), Barr is lobbying to take over one of the city's lowest-performing schools--described by its very own principal as "a dumping ground for incompetent teachers"--and replace it with several smaller, more autonomous schools. The school district is scheduled to vote on that plan this month.

When the school district failed to approve Barr's similar plan for another high school in 2005, he surrounded that school with five Green Dot charter schools. The result: the original school lost almost half of its incoming class and 63 new teachers--all of whom fled to the Green Dot schools. "If the district doesn't work with me, I'll compete with them and take their kids," said Barr. (And their teachers too, we might add.)

Green Dot's Next Stop: New York City. The United Federation of Teachers in NYC is working with Barr to bring his unique brand of labor relations to the South Bronx.