Homestead cyber school unionizes; union says it's a first

| Wednesday, June 17, 2009

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Teachers at a western Pennsylvania-based cyber charter school have voted to unionize, becoming the first such school to do so in the United States, according to a labor leader.

The faculty at Homestead-based PA Learners Online voted 42-14 Monday to have the Pennsylvania State Education Association represent 76 teachers, counselors and other workers at the school, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board said Wednesday.

"It is clear these public school employees desire the same voice in their working conditions as other school employees across the commonwealth," said James P. Testerman, president of the statewide teachers' union.

Union organizer Kimberly Frum said the effort began in November.

"I think job security was the overriding issue, as well as equity for salaries," Frum said. They have been serving as at-will employees, with annual contracts.

Some cyber charter schools in other states are operated by school districts, and their teachers belong to unions. But PA Learners Online claims to be the first U.S. public cyber charter school to unionize as a new bargaining unit, said Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever.

Pennsylvania's 11 cyber charter schools enrolled about 67,000 students in the 2007-08 school year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Larry Jones, board president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, said two or three charter schools in Philadelphia are unionized, but they are not cyber schools. Keever said the total number of unionized charter schools may be slightly larger.

"People go into the charter school world because it creates an additional ability to be flexible," Jones said. "I think some would say that the unions may tend to limit that flexibility. Oftentimes people view the union as more in line with the traditional public schooling."

The eight-year-old PA Learners Online, which serves 660 Pennsylvania students in kindergarten through high school, is managed by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and is chartered by 10 school districts: Allegheny Valley, Baldwin Whitehall, Bethel Park, Chartiers Valley, Deer Lakes, Moon Area, Shaler Area, South Allegheny, West Allegheny and Woodland Hills.

PA Learners Online board president Cheryl Fogarty said the school's teachers work a couple days a week at the office, and the rest of the week at home.

Pat Sable, the intermediate unit's acting executive director, said management took no position on the organizational drive. The school's teachers operate out of an intermediate unit-owned building, and the unit provides contractual management services.

Sable said the unit will assist the school's board and help the school work out a labor contract.

There are more than 100,000 full-time cyber charter school students in the United States, said Susan Patrick, president and chief executive of the Washington-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, affiliated with the National Education Association, represents about 191,000 active and retired teachers and other school and health care workers.

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