The U.S. has more than 6,000 charter schools. They are authorized in almost every state. While state laws vary, their purpose is the same: to permit alternatives to traditional public schools, unbound by local school districts or district-wide collective bargaining agreements that can stifle innovation.
These laws frame charters as public schools, subject to the usual educational goals and regulations. While publicly funded, each school is initiated by private individuals, rather than a public entity. Founders apply for a charter to an authorizing body (usually a government entity). If granted, the school is governed by a board of trustees comprised of private individuals. The state does not appoint trustees and has only attenuated power to remove them.
Most states provide collective bargaining rights for public employees. A few do not. However, Section 7 rights for protected concerted activity enjoyed by private sector employees under the National Labor Relations Act have not been applicable. By statute, a “state or a political subdivision” cannot be a covered “employer” under the Act. Thus, it was assumed that charters’ labor relations would be governed by whatever state labor law applied to public schools.
However, in 2012, the National Labor Relations Board returned to an old standard affirmed by the Supreme Court where an employer is deemed a “state or political subdivision” if it is (1) created directly by the state to be a department or administrative arm, or (2) administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or to the general public.
Under this standard, if the school was not initiated by a government official or entity, its leadership is not appointed by the state, and its trustees are removable only by the state in unusual circumstances, the school is not exempt from the NLRA as a public entity. The Board and its regional offices consistently have held since 2012 that charters in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia are subject to the NLRA. Indeed, since 2012, there have been no cases in which the Board failed to find NLRA jurisdiction over a charter school.
In LTTS Charter School, 366 NLRB No. 38 (Mar. 15, 2018), an individual employee filed an unfair labor practice charge against her charter school employer, alleging retaliation against the employee for engaging in protected concerted activity. Based on the growing body of Board cases, the regional director found NLRA jurisdiction and issued a complaint. After a trial, an NLRB administrative law judge found the Act did not confer jurisdiction over the school. The Board upheld the decision and dismissed the case.
Texas charter school law differs from other states’. Commonly, under certain circumstances, a state may remove members of school governing bodies; but Texas law permits the state to disband and reconstitute the membership – including appointing new members. This distinction was enough for the Board to find the school’s leadership was “responsible to public officials.”
Thus, Texas law, not the NLRA, governed the employment relationship, and Texas law does not recognize public employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity or to unionize.
LTTS applies only where this Texas law applies. Other states articulate government oversight differently. Charter schools (at least outside Texas) should note that NLRB jurisdiction remains the law in some states (and possibly in states in which the issue has yet to be tested). Schools interested in reviewing the potential for Board jurisdiction (or in considering a challenge to jurisdiction) should consult counsel.