In a first for online charter schools, the union representing hundreds of teachers at California’s largest online charter, the California Virtual Academies, has reached a tentative agreement with school management on a range of issues, including wage increases and caps on the number of students in online classes.
Representing the teachers is California Virtual Educators United, a chapter of the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The CTA and the United Teachers of Los Angeles represent several other charter schools in California, but this is the first agreement to be reached with a virtual charter school not only in California but nationally, according to the CTA.
The agreement followed years of legal and organizing battles, increasingly under the cloud of a possible teachers strike. Complicating the process is that the California Virtual Academies, usually referred to as CAVA, is intertwined with K12 Inc., a for-profit, publicly traded company which runs virtual charter schools nationwide.
The agreement must still be ratified by the end of the month by union members as well as each of the non-profit school boards that oversee the nine “academies” that make up the charter school in different counties across California.
Teachers voted overwhelmingly last November to authorize a strike if their bargaining team could not reach an agreement. The possibility of a strike increased dramatically last week after two days of mediation sessions known as fact finding failed to result in an agreement. Leaders said they were inspired by teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma, and were preparing to walk out this week.
“I think it is very significant,” said CTA president Eric Heins, referring to the tentative agreement. “The teachers came to us to organize because of the abuses they saw. The things they got in this first contract on items like due process and arbitration will set a standard not only for virtual charters but for other charter schools as well.”
It has been especially challenging for the union to organize the approximately 450 teachers who work for the virtual school with a current enrollment of 10,589 students according to state data, and nine separate “academies” in several counties, each with its own board of directors.
One reason is that teachers rarely if ever get to see each other in person, and where the bargaining unit in effect stretches across the entire state. “We now have a first contract that begins the process of fixing CAVA and ensuring the success of our students and teachers,” said union president Brianna Carroll, who lives in Livermore and is a high school social science teacher. “Our schools here in California and other online schools have had very little input from the teachers on the front line.”
A key issue was limiting the number of “homeroom” students, which teachers said can reach 40 students. “This puts undue pressure and stress on these teachers to try to give each student and family the support they deserve, especially at the elementary and middle school levels,” a bulletin on the union’s website explained.
According to a statement sent to EdSource by April Warren, CAVA’s head of school, among the issues agreed to is reducing the work year by 15 days, a 17.6 percent pay increase “on a new salary schedule,” increasing starting salaries to $46,000, a just cause/due process agreement for terminating teachers after a traditional two-year probationary period, and a guarantee of no layoffs for the current school year.
The statement said “it renews its commitment to work with the CTA and the teachers union” but accused the union of “serious material misrepresentation” in announcing the agreement yesterday.
One point of dispute is that the union’s announcement said the agreement was between the teachers union and K12 Inc, the nation’s largest online charter school organization which is also a for-profit, publicly traded company. Rather the agreement was with CAVA itself, the statement asserted.
The relationship between the California Virtual Academies and K12 Inc. is complicated. Last fall, Michael Kraft, a spokesperson for K12 Inc, told EdSource that his company is “a service provider” to the California virtual schools. “We supply curriculum, materials, management, logistics, and other services,” he said. ” In terms of the financial flow, CAVA receives funds from the state and pays its service providers. One of them is K12. K12 does not receive funds directly from the state.”
In the statement issued by the charter school Wednesday it said that “CAVA schools are wholly independent legal entities the are supported by K12, which is a vendor/service provider.”
K12 Inc. has been the focus of several controversies regarding its operations in recent years. Two years ago, for example, without admitting to any liability or wrongdoing, K12 Inc. agreed to an $8.5 million settlement following accusations by then-Attorney General Kamala Harrris of false advertising and inadequate instruction.
Heins, the CTA president said that the bargaining agreement reached by an affiliate of his union underscores the fact that his union is not against charter schools, but against misuse of taxpayer funds and the lack of transparency in the operation of some charter schools, especially for-profit ones.
“We are not anti-charter at all,” said Heins. “What we are against is the charter management industry and these for-profit organizations coming in and spending tax payer money without openness and transparency, and not doing what charter schools were originally intended to do, which is to be laboratories of innovation.”
At the same time, CAVA called on the CTA and the teacher’s union to issue “accurate and trustworthy” information about the issues at stake, and for the CTA “to not hereinafter sponsor legislation to eliminate or severely restrict funding” for online charter schools, in light of the newly forged agreement.
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