Third-grade teacher Aurore Soliman, a French national, has taught in classrooms around the world. In France and in Norway, she was hired and automatically benefitted from pay scales and workplace conditions negotiated by teachers unions.

Now, in New Orleans, she’s fighting for one.

In January, educators at Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans filed union papers with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and asked the charter school’s board to voluntarily recognize them. The union of “educateurs” are demanding “better working conditions, a healthier work-life balance, and improved communication with administration.”

To date, the nascent union has not received the voluntary recognition they sought. Soon, the NLRB is expected to step in and, after hearing from both the administration and the union, set an election date. Teachers hope it’s within a few weeks, before the end of the school year. 

From the administrative side, Lycée CEO Chase McLaurin has been critical of the union movement. “We generally see interjection of a union between administration and staff as complicating efforts at communication,” he wrote in response to questions from The Lens.

It seems hypocritical, teachers say, for Lycée administrators to oppose a union after years of saying, often and in great detail, how the school embraces French culture.  

In France, almost all workers are covered by some kind of collectively bargained contract. And unions are a prominent part of French culture. “If striking were an Olympic sport, France would be world champions,” wrote The Local France, an online newspaper. 

A few months ago, in February, teachers across France walked out of schools, to demand more education funding and better working conditions, and to criticize changes from the country’s new education minister. 

But 5,000 miles away in this French-accredited charter school sited in New Orleans, a Francophone city, the teachers union is fighting for its existence.

The school’s three campuses, which span from pre-k to grade 12, deliver a unique, specialized academic experience. Lycée Français meets both the rigorous national standards of the French education system and Louisiana state curriculum requirements. And because it’s a Type 2 charter school, it can enroll students from anywhere in Louisiana. It has long enjoyed strong support from the state Department of Education and the French consul.

Those who are working to form a union say that they have worked hard for years to positively shape Lycée. They believe that their efforts to unionize will also benefit children. “A school where teachers feel unheard, overworked, and overstressed is not an environment conducive to student success and learning,” said Sam Fick, who teaches pre-kindergarten and has been at Lycée for 12 years. “The working conditions of teachers (creates) the learning environment for students.”

In 2013, then State Superintendent John White visited the embattled school to ask French national teachers to stick with Lycee Francais. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

A History of Turmoil

Shortly after the union presented its petition in January, CEO Chase McLaurin sent an email to all staff with the subject: “Union FAQs.”

In it, he posed several questions. “Do we need a union to give us due process?”

“Of course not,” he wrote, before offering a lengthy explanation of his view.

McLaurin now heads up the school of roughly 1,000 students. But in 2011, Lycée started small. Long-dedicated teachers and parents kept a steady hand on the school, to usher it through some rocky inaugural years. 

In those early days, parents who volunteered as board members weren’t well-versed in public records or open meetings laws, which is not uncommon for a nascent charter school. But board instability and leadership turmoil rattled parents and teachers. State Superintendent John White paid a visit to the school, urging French national teachers to stick with Lycée as it navigated administrative turnover and a full board turnover, ordered by White himself. 

At White’s direction, the school underwent a massive overhaul, reseating the entire board, conducting a long and tenuous search for a new leader, and reestablishing trust with parents who’d endured months of intense board meetings. 

Beyond the classroom, parent Amy George Hirons believes that the school suffers from chronic administrative challenges. “For 12 years this school’s greatest flaw has been a lack of communication,” she said.

Part of that poor communication is petty treatment of teachers, said parent Barbara Penn Provo. In some ways, the school is run like a dictatorship, she says, recalling how a teacher was written up for leaving a meeting at 5:15 p.m., even though the meeting was supposed to end at 5 p.m. on a workshop day, when no students were in school. Also, she said, some French national teachers are arbitrarily not being offered contract extensions. 

So Penn Provo respects the teachers’ decision to work toward a union. 

“First and foremost, teachers wouldn’t want to have a union if there wasn’t a reason to have one,” she said. If the school doesn’t address the issues that have led teachers to the union drive, teachers won’t want to work there, she asserts. “They talk to each other. All the teachers know what’s going on at Lycee.” 

Last school year, Penn Provo’s daughter Phoenix was one of the students who protested outside the school after the firing of a beloved teacher. Their misgivings about the school’s administration were so grave that her parents decided to enroll her in a new school this year, a move that left her without the ability to earn the French baccalaureate degree she would have earned at Lycée. But with all the uncertainty, they worried that degree might not have even been an option at Lycée at the end of her four years.

From within the staff too, there is strong criticism. The dysfunctional administration has created high rates of unnecessary turnover, said Berenguer Becat, a French national who has taught high-school history for four years at Lycée. For years now, he has seen teachers leave because they don’t have enough time to prepare for classes and because administrators micromanage staff, in a way that’s not good for students or teachers, he said.

“It’s managing by stress,” said Becat, who said that his end goal is “job security and better working conditions.” 

McLaurin, who stepped into the role of CEO at Lycée in July 2022, has been criticized for his lack of presence at the school, his controversial firing of a beloved teacher last year, and interference with the student council as part of that fallout – or so families contend.

It’s not always been clear if McLaurin is speaking as an individual when he criticizes the union or if he is reflecting a larger board perspective. But the board and its attorney deflected questions to him in a way that would seem to indicate that they share his view. Asked if the board supported the union, Lycée board president Cassandra Sanchez referred The Lens to the school’s administration. Lycée attorney Brooke Duncan also referred The Lens to administration. 

Barbara Penn Provo’s daughter, Phoenix, then a Lycee Francais eighth grader, held a sign supporting the school’s civics teacher at a protest in 2023 after the teacher was fired. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

From a scuttled union to growing numbers. 

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans schools were almost entirely unionized. But after the storm, the union was ultimately destroyed by the state takeover and dismantling of the New Orleans Public Schools. 

For several years after Katrina, there was not much of a union presence in city schools. United Teachers of New Orleans has slowly made inroads, and now Lycée educators can look to several other local unions for guidance.

The first charter school to unionize in the city was Morris Jeff Community School. There, in 2013, the charter’s board voted to voluntarily recognize the Morris Jeff United Educators. The group is now on its third collective-bargaining agreement. One year later, a top public high school in the state, Benjamin Franklin High School also voted to voluntarily recognize its teachers’ union.

Other unions, however, have been met with staunch opposition. At International High School of New Orleans, the board has refused to sit down for negotiations for years. At The Willow School, formerly known as Lusher Charter School, board members coordinated behind closed doors and via email, stifling public input — and the teachers’ union vote ultimately failed.

As evidenced by additional union complaints filed against McLaurin, voluntary recognition at Lycée seems unlikely.

McLaurin styled himself as a protector of the school environment. 

“Will our Lycée Français culture change if UTNO (United Teachers of New Orleans) gets into our school?” he asked in his email questioning the need for a union. In his mind, apparently, the answer is yes.

“Collective bargaining is by its nature contentious — it’s a legal process, and results in a document which hamstrings both teachers and an administration from working together as needed to address problems and take advantage of opportunities,” he wrote, then continued his critique. “In a union school, everything has to be “negotiated” — people can’t just sit down and have a discussion to figure out a problem or come up with a common sense solutions with individual employees. Does that sound like a culture in which you wish to work?”

McLaurin closed his email message noting that it was the beginning of a daily email campaign he’ll be sending in consultation with “experts.”

There have been no further public messages from McLaurin, perhaps because there were contentions that his message — “that selecting a union would be futile” — could violate the National Labor Relations Act, which specifically requires employers to refrain from certain “unfair labor practices,” and protects employees’ rights to unionize.

Parents see French national teachers as essential to Lycée Français.

When asked about Lycée Français, parents often say that French national teachers are the lifeblood of their childrens’ experience at the French school. 

Many Lycée educators arrive through a state exchange program, with teaching visas to work at the school for one to three years. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, called CODOFIL, said Lycée currently employs 25 teachers who have taught between 1 and 5 years through the program. That regular turnover means the school’s teaching staff may not have the same institutional memory as other schools, who often have a core of longstanding staff. 

That may make a union even more necessary, to maintain consistency, said parent Amy George Hirons, who thinks a union is key to ensure traveling French teachers have protections in the school and a voice. 

George Hirons supports the union because she sees the visiting teachers as the backbone of the “world-class education” that her son Armor, now a junior, has received at Lycée since kindergarten.

After the January announcement, McLaurin’s administration questioned the eligibility of French national teachers to join with their American colleagues in a union. In question are the teachers provided by CODOFIL, the state agency that recruits and places international teachers. Many of CODOFIL’s placements at Lycée are from France, while others are French speakers from nations such as Belgium, Haiti, Canada, Mali, Morocco, Ivory Coast and Benin.

Some teachers worry Lycée will argue that CODOFIL teachers are not school employees, because they are assigned to the school, and therefore can’t be included with teachers in the unit. Union advocates argue that the teachers’ placement doesn’t disqualify them as employees, who should be defined by working hours, places, duties and other things, all of which are set or provided by the school. Ultimately, it’s a matter that the National Labor Relations Board will decide. 

The insinuation that French nationals would not be eligible is frustrating to Soliman. “I feel like I’m back in 19th-century France, when people were trying to get a union to fend for themselves,” she said, as she left the school one afternoon to catch the streetcar and bus home, toting along her son who is in kindergarten at Lycée. Her reasons for supporting the union are practical, she said. She wants to “feel more protected and have a better balance, in life and work.”

Note: The day after this story published, the National Labor Relations Board announced that the union election for Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans will be held May 13. Teachers, including foreign nationals working on visas, are included in the unit and eligible to vote.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...