Chicago Teachers Just Voted 98% to Authorize the First Charter School Strike in U.S. History

Rebecca Burns October 30, 2018

Charter school teachers voted overwhelmingly to strike. (Chicago ACTS / Facebook)

On Tues­day, teach­ers at 15 Chica­go char­ter schools vot­ed 98 per­cent to autho­rize a strike as they con­tin­ue to bar­gain a con­tract with Acero Schools, the largest union­ized char­ter net­work in the city. On Fri­day, four loca­tions of the Chica­go Inter­na­tion­al Char­ter Schools (CICS) will take a strike autho­riza­tion vote. And teach­ers at nine oth­er Chica­go char­ter net­works are also in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, and could sim­i­lar­ly opt to take strikes votes in the com­ing months. 

If no agree­ment is reached, Chica­go could be home to the nation’s first-ever char­ter strike. Teach­ers have been inch­ing clos­er to this pos­si­bil­i­ty for the past two years, dur­ing which time eleventh-hour deals have nar­row­ly avert­ed strikes against at least three oth­er char­ter operators.

That’s a stun­ning rever­sal from 2012, when Chica­go char­ter oper­a­tors bragged that, unlike union­ized pub­lic schools, char­ters were unaf­fect­ed by teacher strikes.

Since then, Chica­go has become the epi­cen­ter of char­ter union orga­niz­ing in the coun­try,” as Illi­nois Net­work of Char­ter Schools Pres­i­dent Andrew Broy lament­ed in the Chica­go Tri­bune last year.

What’s more, char­ter teach­ers are cur­rent­ly bar­gain­ing their first con­tracts as mem­bers of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU), which also rep­re­sents the city’s 27,000 pub­lic school teach­ers. In March, the Chica­go Alliance of Char­ter Teach­ers and Staff, an affil­i­ate of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers that rep­re­sents more than 30 char­ters in the city, merged with the CTU in a bid to strength­en the hands of both unions.

Our iden­ti­ty does not derive from our employ­er, it derives from our work,” says Chris Baehrend, the chair of CTU’s char­ter divi­sion. I’m not a cor­po­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tive, I’m a pub­lic educator.”

CTU-rep­re­sent­ed char­ter schools are try­ing a new tac­tic as they bar­gain with 11 dif­fer­ent char­ter oper­a­tors this fall. Instead of advanc­ing a dif­fer­ent set of pro­pos­als at each bar­gain­ing table, union nego­tia­tors across dif­fer­ent char­ter net­works are work­ing from a set of com­mon pro­pos­als hashed out with­in the union this spring, says Baehrend. The union even says it pro­posed that char­ter oper­a­tors nego­ti­ate as a group, though this has not yet occurred to date.

One goal is to increase pay and ben­e­fits across the char­ter indus­try, where salaries and ben­e­fits are typ­i­cal­ly below those in Chica­go Pub­lic Schools.

Jen Conant is a math teacher at CICS’ North­town Acad­e­my, which in 2009 was among the city’s first char­ter schools to union­ize. After sev­en years at the school, Conant says she makes less than her first-year coun­ter­parts at CPS.

Part of the prob­lem is bloat at the top” of char­ter net­works, she says, includ­ing a top-heavy man­age­ment struc­ture and man­age­ment fees paid by CPS to char­ter admin­is­tra­tors. Accord­ing to the union, the char­ter man­age­ment orga­ni­za­tion fees paid to CICS rose to $4.5 mil­lion this year, up from $3.3 mil­lion last year.

In a state­ment released last week, CICS said that less than a quar­ter of the pub­lic fund­ing it receives goes to man­age­ment fees. The rest goes to cov­er rent, cap­i­tal projects and repairs. (Anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion, Civ­i­tas Edu­ca­tion Part­ners, is the direct employ­ers of teach­ers at CICS schools.)

CICS is trou­bled by CTU’s threat­ened strike and the obvi­ous harm it will cause to our stu­dents and their fam­i­lies,” the state­ment reads. Nonethe­less, we remain hope­ful that, through con­tin­u­ing good-faith nego­ti­a­tions, a strike will be avoided.”

In prepa­ra­tion for the strike vote, char­ter teach­ers have been wear­ing their red CTU shirts to school. The move is also an allu­sion to the nation­wide Red for Ed” move­ment demand­ing increased fund­ing for pub­lic schools, says Conant. In addi­tion to teacher pay and ben­e­fits, the union is push­ing for guar­an­tees that schools will be ade­quate­ly staffed with coun­selors, social work­ers, school psy­chol­o­gists and nurs­es. If char­ter teach­ers are suc­cess­ful in win­ning con­tract guar­an­tees for wrap­around stu­dent ser­vices, it could have a rip­ple effect.

What’s hap­pen­ing in our con­tract nego­ti­a­tions can also help serve teach­ers and stu­dents in the CPS con­tract nego­ti­a­tions,” says Conant. 

The char­ter union’s pro­pos­als also include addi­tion­al resources for restora­tive jus­tice and sanc­tu­ary poli­cies to pro­tect undoc­u­ment­ed stu­dents and par­ents from immi­gra­tion enforce­ment — the lat­ter of which was bor­rowed from a Los Ange­les char­ter school that devel­oped pro­to­col after a father was arrest­ed by Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment while drop­ping his daugh­ter off at school last year. These mea­sures also go a step beyond those in effect in CPS schools, says Baehrend.

Ulti­mate­ly, teach­ers say the goal of char­ter unions should be to force man­age­ment to oper­ate with greater trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty. Fol­low­ing a series of cor­rup­tion scan­dals at UNO char­ter schools, the pre­de­ces­sor of Acero, some groups of char­ter par­ents have pushed for the estab­lish­ment of local school coun­cils — elect­ed bod­ies that already have a role in gov­ern­ing pub­lic schools.

That’s the type of mea­sure that union­ized char­ter teach­ers might even­tu­al­ly be able to push for, says Baehrend. Our goal is to fix this fun­da­men­tal defect with char­ter oper­a­tors — they receive pub­lic mon­ey, but there’s no account­abil­i­ty. We want to put the pub­lic’ back into pub­lic char­ter schools, and make sure the pub­lic inter­est is actu­al­ly represented.” 

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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