Teachers attempting to unionize a network of Chicago charter schools will have to hold a secret election despite having received approval from state labor regulators.
That's the ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, which determined that Civitas Schools, the charter operator, is a private employer. The ruling, released Tuesday, means unionization efforts at Civitas are governed by federal law, which requires secret ballots.
In April, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board approved a collective-bargaining unit for teachers at Civitas, which operates three of Chicago International Charter School's dozen campuses.
Civitas then brought the case to the NLRB, arguing it is covered by federal laws governing private-sector unions, rather than state laws covering public employee unions.
"What the decision demonstrates is that charter-management organizations are private," says Simon Hess, chief executive officer of Civitas. "That's part of the entrepreneurial spirit that has come to the public-school system."
The ruling is a favorable precedent for other charter-school operators, who can point to the federal decision as they assert their independence from state labor laws.
Charter schools in Illinois operate under state charter law, which exempts them from some state laws and education policies. They have independent boards of directors and are free to set different curricula and hiring standards than traditional public schools.
Although Civitas is funded partly by private donors, Hess estimates that 90 percent of Civitas' $15 million annual operating budget comes from taxpayer dollars.
The preponderance of public funding means charter schools are public organizations, says Gail Purkey, spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
"We still believe that these are public employees," Purkey says, "and they had rights for collective bargaining under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act."
State lawmakers sided with that interpretation this weekend, when they passed broad legislation on charter schools. The General Assembly declared that existing Illinois law requires charter schools to comply with the state's labor-relations act.
It must be signed by the governor, but votes in the legislature show wide political support for the bill: It passed 102-14 in the House and 55-1 in the Senate on final readings.
Despite state support, Civitas teachers say they are ready to comply with this week's federal ruling.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, the teachers may still bargain collectively if they elect to form a union by secret ballot. The ballot process allows teachers to vote for a union in private, rather than by publicly signing a union membership card.
More than 75 percent of teachers signed a card for the petition to the state board.
"We are prepared to proceed with an election as soon as possible and are confident that our union will prevail," Brian Harris, a special-education teacher at Civitas Northtown Academy, said in a statement.
The privacy of a secret-ballot election is another reason Hess says he supports the national ruling.
"We don't elect the president by a card check," he says. "We allow people to privately vote their conscience."
Hess says he expects an election this month. If teachers opt against a union, they would need to wait at least one year before they hold another election.