St. Paul charter school's teachers join union

Teachers at a charter school in St. Paul have voted to join the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota.

That means 25 teachers at the Twin Cities German Immersion School are now eligible to join the 70,000 member union. They will be the only charter educators currently affiliated with the organization.

"I wouldn't point to a particular problem we were having, just that it would be better for us to be organized," said Katie Stephens, who teaches middle school language arts and social studies at the charter.

The unionization effort felt natural for most of the staff, some of whom come from heavily unionized countries, said Stephens. "The fact that we're a German immersion school and a lot of our teachers are German or European, it's something that comes second nature to them."

Once the National Labor Relations Board approves the vote, the teachers will take several months to draft a constitution and bylaws and begin negotiating a contract.

Minnesota charter schools are publicly funded, but independently run. They're free from certain state guidelines that traditional public schools follow. That allows them to try different approaches, like having longer school days or school years.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said the vote was a significant one.

"We now have a connection to these educators at this charter," she said. "We can learn from them and they can learn from us as well."

"I think innovation is always possible both in charter schools and in traditional public education, with unions or without unions," said the school's executive director Ann Jurewicz, who led a local union when she was a teacher.

However Jurewicz sees herself and the school board as having a lot to learn when it comes to how negotiations will work with union teachers in a charter school.

Teacher unionization at charter schools has increased nationally in recent years, prompting questions about how students fare once teachers unionize.

A new study from the University of Minnesota found that charter school student performance takes a dip after teachers unionize. That may be because teachers and management are distracted during unionization.

Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, found the dip in scores to be a temporary one. "Once it's settled, you just go back to normal," said Sojourner.

While his data appears to show no real harm to charter school students' test scores when teachers unionize, Sojourner also hasn't seen an increase in scores after unionization either.

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