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UPDATED, Feb. 28, 5:40 p.m. EST

While the District’s public charter sector awaits matching funds through the Washington Teachers’ Union’s (WTU) newly ratified contract with D.C. Public Schools, teachers and staff members at Mundo Verde Public Charter School are already in the throes of a contract negotiation that moves the local charter school closer to offering competitive wages.   

They achieved that feat through DC ACTS Local 1927, a union that teachers at Mundo Verde PCS formed under the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). 

Nearly four years ago, Mundo Verde PCS became the only District public charter school to unionize amid concerns about pay disparity, transparency and teacher turnover within the public charter sector. With the incoming influx of funds, there has been apprehension about whether public charter school teachers will receive salary increases like their public school counterparts.  

However, teachers at Mundo Verde PCS, like Kelley Ukhun, said they have no worries. 

“We are an outlier as a charter school with an active collective bargaining agreement, so we have a lot more say in our salaries and contracts,” said Ukhun, a fifth grade teacher at Mundo Verde’s J.F. Cook campus and acting president of DC ACTS Local 1927. 

A year before teachers at Mundo Verde PCS successfully formed a union, teachers at Paul Public Charter School and Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy made a similar attempt. After sensing a lack of teacher support, organizers at Paul PCS called off their vote at the last minute. Though teachers at Cesar Chavez PCS successfully unionized, board members closed the middle school campus shortly after, in what some employees described as retaliation. 

Ukhun said that because Mundo Verde PCS embraces the values of community and collaboration, the teachers’ union coalesced with the support of a mostly unified staff, students’ families and sympathetic administrators. 

Since the launch of DC ACTS 1927, more than a dozen public charter schools contacted either DC ACTS Local 1927 or AFT to explore the possibility of unionizing. For Ukhun, no other circumstance guarantees that teachers in the public charter sector will receive a pay bump and other protections. 

“In what capacity are other charter schools making sure teachers get pay increases and access to the resources they need?” Ukhun said. “[Administrators] will make you fill out a survey and say they got input, which is different from having a seat at the table in the decision-making process. Our relationship [at Mundo Verde PCS] is governed by a legally binding document, which allows us to discuss labor issues.” 

The Lingering Question of Transparency 

In a Feb. 7 letter, leaders of the District’s 69 public charter school networks told D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn that they would exclusively dedicate the equivalent matching funds to compensating public charter school teachers. 

The letter, sent by the DC Charter School Alliance, not only alluded to questions about how public charter schools would spend those funds but mentioned pay bumps and bonuses that public charter schools teachers received over the last three years. 

In years past, local lawmakers have attempted to shine a light on how public charter schools, which are privately-run institutions, spend public dollars. In 2015, the D.C. Council unanimously approved the Public Charter School Fiscal Transparency Amendment Act, which dictates how to mitigate conflict of interest in contracts between public charter schools and vendors and defines the circumstances under which a public charter school may be engaged in fiscal mismanagement. 

In 2019, D.C. Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Anita Bonds (D-At large), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Elissa Silverman (I-At large), introduced legislation requiring transparency in public charter school contracts greater than $25,000. Not much was heard about that bill after a joint hearing between the Committee of the Whole and what was then the Committee on Education in October of that year. 

Per the School Reform Act, the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB) doesn’t have the authority to dictate how each public charter school spends its money. However, public charter schools submit an annual report to DCPCSB that includes the highest, lowest and median annual salaries of full-time teachers. 

Out of 69 public charter school networks, 30 of them, including Paul PCS, didn’t have their 2021-2022 school year report posted on the charter schools annual report portion of the DCPCSB website. Most of those who did reported the median teacher’s salary in the $60,000 and $70,000 range. The highest salary, in some cases, stood between $70,000 and $90,000 and the lowest standing at about $40,000.

Briya PCS, Carlos Rosario International PCS, Cesar Chavez PCS, Digital Pioneers Academy PCS, Ingenuity Prep PCS, IDEA PCS and Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS counted among the public charter schools where the highest-paid teacher had a salary of at least $90,000. Meanwhile, the lowest-paid teacher at Apple Tree Early Learning PCS and Capital City PCS had a salary of less than $34,000. 

Karen Dresden, head of schools at Capital City PCS, noted that the aforementioned figure for the charter network includes the salaries of part-time instructors. The starting income for full-time instructors stands at $51,000, she told The Informer. 

A Former Educator Looks Back on Past Organizing Efforts 

During the 2020-2021 school year, the median salary for teachers at Paul PCS stood at nearly $70,000 with the highest-paid teacher’s salary standing at more than $90,000. 

By that time, each teacher’s contract included a pay scale dictating how their annual salary increases based on years of experience and level of education. For several years, teachers had no document of that sort. The lack of transparency around salary, in part, inspired their attempt to form a union during the 2016-2017 school year. 

Patricia Sanabria, a former Paul PCS teacher, counted among those who organized around this endeavor. She said doing so meant getting a feel for whether her colleagues supported the idea of a union and attending what she described as “anti-union information meetings” conducted by Paul PCS administrators.

Sanabria and others also attended off-site meetings during which teachers disclosed their salaries to one another. She recounted seeing teachers cry upon learning about the vast disparities in pay and what, for the lower-paid teachers, seemed like an assignment of salaries based on their individual worth rather than success in their position and level of experience and education. 

That year, Sanabria, who had four years of teaching experience under her belt, garnered an annual salary of a little over $40,000, which she described as not enough to live comfortably in the District.

Toward the end of the 2016-2017  school year, plans to unionize fell apart when few teachers agreed to sign a document affirming their commitment to the cause. Shortly after, Paul PCS experienced significant personnel changes at all levels of leadership. 

Though, as a compromise, teachers received the pay transparency they desired, Sanabria said administrators created a climate where many of her colleagues not only feared losing their jobs if they supported the union, but succumbed to anti-union propaganda. 

“Their fear was definitely justified. It was a very big step to take,” said Sanabria, who wrapped up her last year at Paul PCS during the 2021-2022 school year, when she served a part-time virtual teaching role. 

“A union would have benefited a lot of the teachers and employees,” Sanabria added. “People make unions out to be scary things [like] they’re more [about] trouble than alleviating or bringing solutions. It’s unfortunate that we weren’t successful but I think a lot of things improved for the teachers the following school year — and part of that was because we tried to form a union.”

Note: This story is updated to clarify the availability of the charter school reports and includes a response from Karen Dresden, head of schools at Capital City PCS. 

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for your reporting and your research. In fact, the average starting teacher salary for non-unionized charter campuses is higher than the unionized charter campuses. In addition, the latest annual reports for charters show teacher maximum salaries of up to $141,000. Interestingly, in the two annual reports you linked with the “lowest paid teachers”, the page has a notation right above salaries that the definition of “teacher” includes residents and fellows. Many of the salaries reported are for teacher assistants, support aides and others who are not full time teachers because that is what the DC charter board requests in the annual reports.

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