Disrupt This!

What happened when teachers confronted a union-busting charter CEO at the National Charter Schools Conference in New Orleans?

photo (7)

Charter teachers (and disruptors) Julia McLaughlin, Karla Tobar and Chris Baehrend.

When is *disruption* not just a super cool buzz word but something that’s actually, well, *disruptive*? That would be when teachers attending the National Charter Schools Conference in New Orleans asked the CEO of an Ohio charter management organization about firing teachers for trying to organizing a union at his schools—and using taxpayer money to pay the fine when he got caught. This went about as well as you might expect. And when security arrived, combing through the crowd for disruptors, that’s when things got really disruptive… 

A little bit o’ background
Our story actually starts long before the bon temps starting roulez-ing at this year’s charter conference in the Big Easy. In 2014, teachers at two I CAN charter schools in Cleveland decided to unionize in hopes of improving working conditions at the school, raising pay and reducing sky-high turnover. And when the school year ended, seven teachers who were leaders of the organizing effort, found themselves no longer working at the schools. Why? Because they’d been fired by school leaders, who, according to a federal complaint filed by the teachers, *led teachers to believe they were under surveillance and pressured teachers into revealing who was leading the organizing effort.*

But wait—it gets better (for realz)
The feds sided with the teachers, finding that I CAN was guilty of *interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees.* The order, similar to an indictment in a criminal case, also accused I Can of *discriminating in regard to the hire or tenure or terms or conditions of employment, thereby discouraging membership in a labor organization.* I Can founders Marshall Emerson and Jason Stragand, meanwhile, acknowledged that they’d like their schools to remain union free, then paid the $69,000 in backpay they were ordered to pay the fired teachers with tax-payer money.

Disruption happens
Which brings us up to the present, to yesterday, as a matter of fact, when charter school teacher and union member Karla Tobar, raised her hand during a session on Charter School Growth Strategies: Start-Up, Growth, and Expansion, and put to I CAN CEO Marshall Emerson this question: *You mentioned some best practices include building relationships with teachers, so how do you justify firing seven teachers for trying to form a union, and having to pay $69,000 for that?* At which point, other disruptors in the audience helpfully handed around $69,000 bills that explained the history of the case, the federal judgment and pointed out that I CAN had paid the fine with tax-payer funds.

Are you a disruptor? What about you?
A debate ensued, several more teachers weighed in, and eventually it was time to return to the matter at hand: Charter School Growth Strategies: Start-Up, Growth, and Expansion, including I CAN’s own plans to expand its network into Indiana. Oh, and then security arrived, and attempted to identify just who among the audience members was a disruptor, a task that is apparently much more difficult, not to mention time consuming, than it looks. No doubt you are wondering at this point, how can we keep this kind of disruption from happening again? And were the teachers involved actually engaged in a kind of *cage busting,* in which teachers bust out of their cages and *take ownership of their schools and systems*? Alas, I can only answer question one, thanks to this official document that was sent to conference presenters yesterday.

We’re reaching out to let you know that a small group of participants disrupted a session this morning that made it difficult for the presenters to share information with other attendees. While we seek to foster honest and productive dialogue throughout the conference, we are committed to making this a positive experience for both attendees and presenters.

Disruption Guidelines
In the event of a disruption, please:

  *   Stay calm and limit your reaction.
  *   Seek to engage anyone being disruptive in a calm dialogue.
  *   Look for ways to get your session back on track by pivoting the conversation.
  *   Please act professionally and remember you could be recorded and/or mentioned on social media.
  *   Do NOT remove or “kick out” anyone from the session.
  *   Do NOT get upset, angry, or lash out in any way.
  *   Get in touch with me right away

Send tips and comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.com.



  1. “Please act professionally and remember you could be recorded and/or mentioned on social media.”

    Is that Pearson’s gig after testing season ends?

  2. Love this post! Nice payback, former ICAN teachers, for all the &@#$ “creative disruption” wrought upon our public schools courtesy of the “reformers.”
    Is that a picture of the school? Looks like it was an office building in an industrial park.
    Finally, interesting how easily ICAN came up w/$69K.
    Just like Pear$on–when caught fudging–had millions$ at their di$posal. Ju$t a drop in the bucket–all in a day’$ work (well, not really work) in the education bu$ine$$.

  3. Hi, Jennifer.

    I’m leaving a long piece about another effort of teachers trying to organize a union, this one out here in Los Angeles. It was originally written for Diane Ravitch’s blog. I took out the links, as your site blocks them as “spam.”

    I apologize in advance for the length:


    In Los Angeles, teachers from the largest charter chain, Alliance, have been attempting to unionize. When and if a union is organized, it will represent over 600 teachers, teaching over 10,000 students.

    Here’s a long post with highlights of the efforts to form/crush this budding effort. We’re talking about David & Goliath here… young teacher folks, some in their early and mid-twenties, from low-income or middle-income backgrounds, going up against a billion-dollar organization like the CCSA… and courageously facing an implied threat of having their future careers as teachers ruined through being blackballed by CCSA and its allies.

    Alliance management and the California Charter School Association have responded with illegal attempts to crush the teachers. The CCSA is funded by Gates, Broad, Walton et al. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who wants to abolish all school boards, is on their board of directors.

    These teachers have had to file actions with the state’s governing body PERB (Public Employee Relations Board) multiple times. Once a group of teachers embarks on an attempt to organize a union, management has to back off, and stay out.

    That’s not happening. Alliance has even resorted to paying former students to call up teachers and parents, reading the scripts in front of them. They try to pressure the teachers to oppose forming a union, and try to manipulate the parents into pressuring the teachers into not unionizing. This has nothing to do with the students’ belief in the benefits of the school remaining non-union, as they have no such belief. They are dirt poor, and need the money. That’s all.

    Here’s the script that trie to paint UTLA as the evil boogey man (stage directions are in the script, not from me, btw):


    “Hi, my name is _________________. Is ____________ there? I am calling from a group of alumni from Alliance Charter Schools. How are you doing today?

    “Great. I wanted to make sure you knew about a situation at the Alliance that could affect how decisions are made about your children’s education. Did you know that right now there is an effort to start a teachers’ union at the Alliance?”

    IF YES: “What have you heard about what’s going on?”

    —- Please pay close attention to these responses and note what is said in NationBuilder. If they have heard something that you know isn’t true, refer to fact sheet to see if you can correct any of this information.

    Then go on to next paragraph.

    IF NO: Just go on to next paragraph.

    “Well, what we know right now is that UTLA – the teachers’ union in LA Unified schools – is trying to organize Alliance teachers to join UTLA. Right now the Alliance is independent and doesn’t have a union.

    “Having a teachers’ union would be a big change for the Alliance. It would end the independence that the Alliance has to make decisions on behalf of kids.

    “And – I don’t know about your kids – but I chose to go to the Alliance because of the small class sizes, great teachers, and personalized attention.” [Add any other reasons you chose to attend the Alliance.]

    “If UTLA unionized at the Alliance, UTLA would get involved in decisions about those things – like how to evaluate teachers and how much learning time kids get. Even class sizes – and a lot more – would need to be approved by UTLA.

    “And, did you know that UTLA actually has a track record of opposing charter schools?

    “It’s true. UTLA has been against charter schools and the Alliance for years. They’ve given money to candidates for LA School Board who voted to close some Alliance Schools.

    “And, UTLA has supported laws that make charter schools – including the Alliance schools – harder to start and operate.

    “This isn’t right. So we are asking parents to sign a petition in support of the Alliance as it is today … without UTLA.

    “Will you please sign our petition?”

    If NO: “May I ask why you won’t sign it?” [Gauge by their response if they are actually in support of UTLA or if they just need more info or say they are too busy. If they really won’t sign it, say:]

    “OK, thank you for your time today. Have a great day.”

    If YES: “Great! Can I get an email address where we can send it to you?”

    [Please record in NationBuilder if we don’t already have it.]

    [If we don’t have an email, say:] “Can we send you a text message with the web site so you can sign our petition? Is this number that I’ve called you on the best number to send it to?”

    [If they provide another number, please record in NationBuilder.]

    “Thanks so much for your time today, and thank you for your support of the Alliance. Have a great day!”


    Here’s an article:


    Both the phone call script and that story above frames Alliance’s union-busting as an “anti-UTLA” effort. The truth is, that the move to unionize originated internally at Alliance. Those teachers came to UTLA, not the other way around. The teachers at Alliance are free to pursue whatever course they wish, including an effort to unionize independent of UTLA.

    Here’s another article:


    “Alliance administration initially responded by issuing a statement assuring teachers and counselors that they would ‘support any decision made by employees to join or not to join a union.’ In later responses to news publications Alliance stated that their intent is simply ‘to put out facts so teachers can make informed decisions.’

    “However, recent actions and an internal memorandum authored by Alliance and circulated to administrators show that in fact there is a concerted campaign coordinated by Alliance home office to coerce and discourage teachers, and even parents, from supporting educators forming a union. The document is a guide for administrators on how to utilize personal information in pressuring teachers to not support a union, to illegally block teachers’ access to union information during non-work time, to attempt to silence pro-union teachers’ voices and encourage anti-union teachers, and campaign to parents to discourage them from supporting teachers.

    “ ‘ We are disappointed that Alliance would deliberately claim to their educators and parents that they would not pressure teachers on the one hand and then on the other hand run an intentionally divisive anti-union campaign against us,’ said Oliver Aguirre, English teacher at Alliance Susan & Eric Smidt Technology High School in Lincoln Heights.

    ” ‘In addition to this new evidence and in response to continued coercion, illegal surveillance, and threats of receiving negative evaluations, Alliance teachers are filing additional Unfair Practice Charges with the California Public Employment Relations Board.’

    “ ‘The Alliance administration told us they would respect the decision of their teachers, but their anti-union behavior doesn’t feel respectful at all. This anti-union playbook shows that rather than respect the voices of their pro-union educators the Alliance is doing everything to discourage them,’ said Xochitl Johansen, special education teacher at Alliance Marc & Eva Stern Math and Science High School.”


    Again, we’re talking about David & Goliath here… young folks, some in their early and mid-twenties, from low-income or middle-income backgrounds, going up against a billion-dollar organization like the CCSA… and courageously facing an implied threat of having their future careers as teachers ruined through being blackballed by CCSA and its allies.

    Finally, here’s the memo given to Alliance administrators, and leaked to the press. It’s basically a “How to Crush Unionization” Manual:


    “Talking directly to your people is the best way. Principals can and should tell everyone often that we are doing what we can to stop this (organizing of a union)”
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    “Make use of personal information about teachers in persuading them against forming a union: ‘ Feel free to highlight information you think might be useful to them. For example, if we know a teacher is concerned about finances, you might say,

    ” ‘I was amazed to learn that dues for this union could be about $700 a year. ’”
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    “You do not have to allow union representatives on your campus.”
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    “The goal is NO unionization, not WHICH union (becomes allied with Alliance teachers, once a union is formed, JACK)”

    Regarding part of the script where the Alliance administrator, with no prodding from upper management (COUGH! COUGH!), makes the “amazing” discovery that a prospective union—horror or horrors!—charges dues that may amount to $700/year, keep this in mind. UTLA just negotiated a 10% raise that covers that amount many times over, even for first year teachers at the lowest end of the salary scale.

    Does that Alliance administrator actually think the teachers in UTLA would have received that double-digit salary increase if they were 35,000 isolated independent contractors, instead of collective unionized force funded by dues?

    One more thing, here’s UTLA’s timeline of illegal union-busting activity:

    “Timeline of Alliance Anti-Union Activity:

    “FRIDAY, MARCH 13th – Almost 70 teachers at Alliance announce that they want to form a union at their schools. Alliance Chief Executive Dan Katzir told the Los Angeles Times that ‘We acknowledge the rights of our teachers to undertake this effort. We also recognize that our teachers are under no obligation to participate.'[1]

    Judy Burton, former Alliance CEO and Dan Katzir send their first communication to staff regarding union activity stating, ‘To be clear, we do not endorse or denounce any particular union or unions generally. Regardless, we will support any decision by employees to join or not join a union.’

    “MONDAY, MARCH 16th – Alliance sends a letter to teachers under the guise of facts about organizing. It says that teachers have a right to join a union free from coercion. The letter, sent to every teacher from their supervisor, then attacks unionization and unions. (ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    “WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18th- Alliance, despite legal right to have union meetings on non-work time tells teachers and union organizers that they have no right to meet on school property. (ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    “FRIDAY, MARCH 20th – Alliance purchases a domain that will house their anti-union website.[2]

    “FRIDAY, MARCH 20th—Alliance distributes another letter to certificated staff under the guise of more facts about UTLA and the union. The letter expands on the March 16th the attack on unionization, unions and UTLA. (ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    “MONDAY, MARCH 23rd—Dan Katzir sends an email to all staff encouraging staff to “give me a fair opportunity to prove that commitment to you—in not just words, but action—before you make any decisions on the unionization question.” (ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    “MONDAY, MARCH 23rd – Alliance management sends a letter to parents attacking the teacher’s decision to form a union signed by Dan Katzir and former CEO Judy Burton. [3] (ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    “WEDNESDAY, MARCH 25th- Alliance illegally blocks email newsletter to Alliance educators from Alliance Educators United. (ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    “THURSDAY, MARCH 26th- Alliance, despite legal right to have union meetings on non-work time tells teachers and union organizers that they have no right to meet on school property. (ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    “THURSDAY, MARCH 26th – Alliance website attacking the union goes online. [4] (ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    “THURSDAY, MARCH 26th—Alliance sends a memo to all certificated staff outlining the benefits Alliance offers its teachers and stating, ‘We respectfully disagree with the assertion that unionization with UTLA would help advance educational opportunities with our students.’(ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    “FRIDAY, MARCH 27th- Alliance does an automated phone call to parents and families at one or more schools criticizing the unionization effort of educators.” (ILLEGAL, under California’s PERB laws, JACK)

    The CCSA knows that if Alliance goes union, teachers the other chains may also follow suit… KIPP, Aspire, etc.

  4. Holy sh– ! I’ve met Karla Tobar… she’s from charter school in L.A., if I’m not mistaken.

    Way to go, Karla. If you have video of this, you should upload it A.S.A.P. !

  5. Thanks for sharing info from this workshop. Are you planning to share information about other workshops in which faculty described terrific experiences they have had in charters? I think the charter world, like the district world is complex.

    1. Greetings sir – sorry our paths didn’t cross in New Orleans. Unless I missed something, this piece doesn’t generalize in any way about either the workshops at the conference or the charter world. It just details how a group of charter teachers confronted a CMO CEO who happened to have been on the receiving end of a federal judgment for violating the rights of his employees. I do have more to share from the conference, including a letter penned by a long-time charter school teacher to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools asking “where have all the teachers gone?” She’s been attending these conferences for 15 years and has noticed a steady reduction in the number of teachers who attend. This year she noticed that not only did the teachers themselves appear to be missing but they seemed to have disappeared from the conversation, which is now all about “innovative leaders and authorizers.” I noticed that too and thought it was strange… I also interviewed some teachers who have organized unions at their charter schools, or are doing so now. I’ll be sure to share!

  6. Jennifer, I will be responding to the teacher who wishes more teachers would attend the national charter conference. My question remains, are you planning to write about teachers/educators who are delighted by the opportunities that chartering has provided them?

    There was a “strand” within the conference that focused on instruction. My sense is that some teachers would find these sessions interesting or useful. Sessions discussed, for example, how to reduce bullying, how to make more effective use of blended learning strategies, how to ask more effective questions in math classes, how to move away from the “sage on the stage” approach to teaching, and on the importance of innovation, arts, and creativity

    Unquestionably there are teachers who have been frustrated by their experiences in charters (as there are teachers frustrated by their experiences working in district schools) – and I think examining and helping to resolve those frustrations should be a priority. That’s part of why I’m helping promote teacher powered schools, whether district or charter.
    Again, I’m wondering if you attended and plan to write about any of these sessions, or other sessions in which educators described how chartering helped them carry out the ideas they have for helping more students succeed.

    1. I have no plans to write anything more about the charter conference. But I am definitely writing about the larger issues you raise, including in the story I’ve been working on about New Orleans (which is almost done!), which looks at why pre-Katrina school reformers saw charters as an opportunity to experiment with new models of teaching and learning–and why they think the current model of top-down, accountability driven reform has basically choked off that experimental possibility. I’ll also be highlighting more charter teacher voices on my blog, including teachers who are pushing for change from the inside. And I love teacher-powered schools… I’ll be looking forward to your comments on my forthcoming labors! And thanks for responding to the teacher. I encouraged her to write to you because National Alliance for Public Charter Schools wouldn’t respond to her. Jennifer

  7. Glad to respond to the teacher. We’ve had a good chat. Thanks for referring her to me.
    She also described to me her excitement at being able to help start a new school – recognizing various challenges.
    I rarely see that kind of excitement/professional validation acknowledged in the anti- charter chortles that come out daily.

Comments are closed.