Chicago’s Charter School Strike Wave Keeps On Winning

Rebecca Burns May 2, 2019

Chicago charter school teachers were the first of their kind to go on strike in U.S. history. (Rebecca Burns)

Chica­go char­ter teach­ers are rack­ing up firsts. In Decem­ber 2018, Chica­go saw the first-ever walk­out at a char­ter net­work in the Unit­ed States. And on Thurs­day, teach­ers employed by two oth­er pri­vate oper­a­tors launched the nation’s first mul­ti-employ­er char­ter school strike. 

We’ve been bar­gain­ing since last sum­mer, and the process has been insult­ing to edu­ca­tors,” said Car­lene Car­pen­ter, a social stud­ies teacher at the Lati­no Youth High School (LYHS), which is affil­i­at­ed with the Youth Con­nec­tion Char­ter School net­work. If char­ter oper­a­tors real­ly cared about edu­ca­tion, we wouldn’t be here today.”

The past six months have seen more than 700 char­ter teach­ers at 22 dif­fer­ent cam­pus­es walk off the job over stalled con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. All of them are rep­re­sent­ed by the Chica­go Teach­ers Union’s recent­ly formed char­ter divi­sion, which has been bar­gain­ing with teach­ers at 11 dif­fer­ent oper­a­tors using a set of com­mon demands hashed out last spring. Key issues include pay bumps for char­ter teach­ers and sup­port staff, who are typ­i­cal­ly paid less than their coun­ter­parts in dis­trict-run schools, as well as caps on class sizes, and more coun­selors and men­tal health sup­ports for students.

At the end of the school day Wednes­day, char­ter teach­ers from across the city held a May Day ral­ly at the Chica­go High School for the Arts (ChiArts), a school that oper­ates pri­vate­ly on a con­tract with the dis­trict. That makes it tech­ni­cal­ly dis­tinct from an inde­pen­dent­ly char­tered school, putting it in a gray area that the union says school admin­is­tra­tion has exploit­ed in order to skirt reg­u­la­tions and avoid pay­ing into the teach­ers’ pen­sion fund.

Com­par­a­tive­ly low pay and ben­e­fits have result­ed in high turnover and the dis­rup­tion of stu­dents’ edu­ca­tion, said Emi­ly Maassen, a ChiArts teacher who spoke at the ral­ly. Edu­ca­tors leave and they’re replaced by a com­put­er pro­gram,” she said, refer­ring to an online learn­ing pro­gram used in the school.

Ear­ly Thurs­day morn­ing, ChiArts set­tled a con­tract with the union, nar­row­ly avoid­ing a walk­out. (Details of the agree­ment were not imme­di­ate­ly avail­able.) Anoth­er school, Youth Con­nec­tion Lead­er­ship Acad­e­my in the city’s Bronzeville neigh­bor­hood, also reached an agree­ment with teach­ers Wednesday.

But at Lati­no Youth High School, as well as two schools run by the non-prof­it Insti­tu­to del Pro­gre­so Lati­no, which serve about 1,000 pre­dom­i­nant­ly Lat­inx stu­dents from the city’s south and west sides, nego­ti­a­tions stalled, result­ing in walkouts. 

Car­pen­ter, who has taught at LYHS for near­ly six years, said that the school’s man­age­ment walked away from the bar­gain­ing table” at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Pilsen Well­ness Cen­ter, the non­prof­it that oper­ates the school, also sent a let­ter to par­ents Wednes­day that the union said is inten­tion­al­ly misleading. 

The let­ter, reviewed by In These Times, says that while oth­er char­ter net­works have accept­ed the CTU’s demands because they are financed direct­ly by the school dis­trict, we receive the major­i­ty of our fund­ing from Youth Con­nec­tion Char­ter School (YCCS), a small char­ter net­work with lim­it­ed finan­cial resources.”

In fact, with 19 cam­pus­es, YCCS is the largest char­ter net­work in Chica­go. While it con­tracts with var­i­ous non­prof­it oper­a­tors, it holds the char­ters to schools in its net­work and receives pub­lic fund­ing accord­ing to the same for­mu­la as oth­er char­ter schools. The union con­tends that the net­work receives mil­lions of pub­lic dol­lars” that it siphons away from the class­room toward man­age­ment fees and bloat­ed exec­u­tive pay­rolls and salaries.”

In response to ques­tions from In These Times, LYHS said in an e‑mail that while YCCS receives funds from CPS, they do not pass 100 per­cent of the fund­ing they receive from CPS to all of their campuses.”

LYHS said in the e‑mail that since 2016, Pilsen Well­ness Cen­ter has pro­vid­ed 6,500 clin­i­cal hours of men­tal health treat­ment to stu­dents. The school said that it does not ask stu­dents for proof of immi­gra­tion sta­tus, in com­pli­ance with fed­er­al law, and that it assists unin­sured stu­dents in apply­ing for Med­ic­aid. Undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants are not eli­gi­ble for Medicaid.

In an unusu­al move, Chica­go Pub­lic Schools CEO Jan­ice Jack­son weighed in on char­ter labor strife this week in a let­ter to CTU and schools offi­cials. Jack­son said she was very con­cerned” about the effect of the strike on at-risk stu­dents the schools serve, many of whom have already dropped out of oth­er schools or crossed paths with the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

Teach­ers and staff say they’re on strike to ensure that stu­dents have access to coun­selors and ade­quate spe­cial edu­ca­tion services.

We serve stu­dents that expe­ri­ence trau­ma at high­er-than-nor­mal rates, and they need these resources,” said Car­pen­ter. The school cur­rent­ly has just one coun­selor, mean­ing that there is a wait­list for stu­dents who are self-refer­ring and request­ing ser­vices,” accord­ing to Carpenter.

More­over, accord­ing to the union, insur­ance billing is cur­rent­ly required for men­tal health ser­vices at LYHS, effec­tive­ly exclud­ing undoc­u­ment­ed stu­dents who make up a large part of the school’s population.

The two pre­vi­ous char­ter strikes in Chica­go have end­ed with increas­es in teacher and staff pay, as well as wins for stu­dent resources. Those include caps on class sizes, carve-outs dur­ing the school day for spe­cial edu­ca­tion case man­agers and strength­ened sanc­tu­ary school” pro­tec­tions that pro­hib­it schools from shar­ing infor­ma­tion with immi­gra­tion enforce­ment — most of which Chica­go Pub­lic School teach­ers can­not for­mal­ly bar­gain over, due to restric­tive state law.

We’re rais­ing stan­dards,” said Chris Baehrend, pres­i­dent of the CTU’s char­ter division.

The union is still in nego­ti­a­tions with three oth­er char­ter oper­a­tors, and more strikes could fol­low this spring. The strat­e­gy of nego­ti­at­ing con­tracts simul­ta­ne­ous­ly has paid off, said Baehrend, forc­ing char­ter oper­a­tors to take mea­sures that were pre­vi­ous­ly off the table, such as cut­ting admin­is­tra­tion costs.

We’ve learned that their bot­tom line is their bot­tom line,” said Baehrend. But our bot­tom line is what stu­dents deserve.”

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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