Teachers at California’s largest online charter school unionize

Historic state ruling supports teachers’ ongoing efforts to improve the learning conditions at the largest provider of online education in California

From the California Teachers Association

A state agency’s decision will give 750 teachers at California’s largest virtual charter school operator a stronger voice in improving working conditions and student learning. The Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) decision comes at a critical time and promises to provide momentum for the teachers’ on-going efforts to fix the state’s broken online school industry.

California Virtual Academies (CAVA) teachers serve 15,000 students. They’re hailing the ruling that means their 17-month wait to get to the bargaining table and fix their school is over.

“We are elated,” said Sarah Vigrass, a 9-year CAVA Community Day teacher in Redlands. “We applaud the decision, and we look forward to sitting down and negotiating as soon as possible over much-needed improvements for teachers and the students we serve. Our students’ learning conditions would improve if more resources were focused on them. There are many problems and now we have a real way to fix them.”

Last Spring a super-majority of teachers at CAVA asked the employer to recognize the California Teachers Association (CTA) as their exclusive bargaining representative. The teachers sought to unionize to improve working conditions and advocate for improved educational experiences in their virtual school. In an effort to thwart the grassroots organizing, the employer rejected the teachers’ request for voluntary recognition which forced them into a protracted hearing before PERB. In a 77-page decision, the Administrative Law Judge concluded that the 11-school CAVA is one bargaining unit and certified CTA as the exclusive representative of all.

Concerned CAVA teachers have been calling for improvements at their school for years.   In March, 2015 they shared their experiences in an in depth study of CAVA released by In the Public Interest that called for better oversight of the school. In June they filed complaints with school districts that authorized CAVA charters throughout California in an effort to protect students. Last week, new research from Stanford University and the University of Washington came out reinforcing many of the concerns CAVA teachers have voiced.

Eric Heins, president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association, said the ruling is a vindication for CAVA teachers’ long battle to fix their school.

“Efforts by the employer to derail the work of these teachers to have a stronger voice so they can better advocate for their students were just a smokescreen, and now the smoke has cleared,” Heins said. “The ruling by PERB clears the way for negotiations toward a first contract that will address some of the many concerns that CAVA teachers have voiced. Now, these teachers can begin to address the problems that are hurting their students, such as insufficient time spent on instruction, high teacher turnover, and too much public money going out of state.”

Heins noted that these educators have endured intimidation and worse as they have fought to unite for a better future for their students.

“Instead of appealing this historic ruling, the employer should do the right thing and join the teachers to find solutions. We expect management to respect these educators and work with them at the bargaining table to make CAVA better for the sake of our students.”

K12 California, CAVA’s operator and primary vendor, is a subsidiary of K12 Inc., a publicly-traded education company based in Virginia. K12 Inc. is the nation’s largest provider of online education and operates schools in 33 states. The company produced $55 million in profit in 2014. In the 2013-14 school year, more than $100 million in state education funding flowed to CAVA to serve about 15,000 California students, and 50 percent of that funding was then paid to K12 Inc. for its services. CAVA schools receive the same per-pupil state funding as brick and mortar schools.

“Now that we are union, front-line educators will have a real voice in decisions that impact our students,” said elementary school teacher Rebecca Flynn from the East Bay. “This is a big step forward in our effort to improve CAVA to better serve California’s kids. We look forward to finally working with administration to tackle the real problems and make CAVA better. There is no time to lose.”