‘We’re One Union’: Why Chicago Teachers Are Out On the First Charter School Strike in the Country

Rebecca Burns December 4, 2018

Charter teachers' demands include equal pay for equal work. (Rebecca Burns)

After a gru­el­ing day of bar­gain­ing on Mon­day, teach­ers at Chicago’s Acero char­ter schools announced short­ly after mid­night that they were going out on the nation’s first-ever char­ter strike. 

At Hec­tor P. Gar­cia M.D. High School this morn­ing, one of Acero’s 15 sites across the city, teach­ers pick­et­ed in the cold with a giant fat cat” bal­loon — a clas­sic Chica­go strike mas­cot cus­tomized for the occa­sion with one inflat­able paw around a bag of mon­ey and the oth­er around a bal­loon teacher dressed in a red Acero T‑shirt.

That image was espe­cial­ly res­o­nant with many teach­ers giv­en eleventh-hour infor­ma­tion about the network’s finances. On Fri­day, Acero, a suc­ces­sor of the scan­dal-plagued Unit­ed Neigh­bor­hood Orga­ni­za­tion (UNO), released to the teacher’s union a copy of its most recent inde­pen­dent audit report.

The union says that it has been request­ing the audit since con­tract bar­gain­ing began sev­en months ago and that the report shows a wind­fall in 2018, includ­ing a $10.6 mil­lion increase in the network’s cash position.

They’ve been cry­ing broke, when in fact they’re flush with cash,” says Martha Baum­garten, a fifth-grade teacher at Acero’s Car­los Fuentes Ele­men­tary School and a mem­ber of the bar­gain­ing team.

A copy of the auditor’s report, reviewed by In These Times, shows that as of June 2018, the net­work had near­ly $24 mil­lion in unre­strict­ed cash, up from $13.2 mil­lion the pre­vi­ous year. That’s sep­a­rate from oth­er restrict­ed assets, includ­ing the $4 mil­lion that Acero is required to set aside in order to pay investors in the more than $60 mil­lion in bonds issued by UNO in 2011 to finance new school buildings.

Most of the cash influx came from the Chica­go Pub­lic Schools fol­low­ing pas­sage of 2017 state law that intro­duced a com­plex new school fund­ing for­mu­la, result­ing in large increas­es for charters.

Their new fund­ing came in dur­ing the fall of 2017,” says Pavlyn Jankov, a researcher at the Chica­go Teacher’s Union (CTU). But instead of putting it into the class­room, Acero decid­ed to stock­pile that cash.”

Accord­ing to the CTU, which rep­re­sents teach­ers at more than 30 Chica­go char­ters fol­low­ing a merg­er ear­li­er this year, Acero’s most recent con­tract pro­pos­al would still see char­ter teach­ers paid an aver­age of $13,000 less than CPS teach­ers for 250 hours more work.

Equal pay for equal work” is a key demand of Acero teach­ers, along with more diverse hir­ing and small­er class sizes. 

In her fifth-grade class­room, Baum­garten teach­es read­ing and writ­ing to 32 stu­dents, Acero’s cur­rent ceil­ing on class sizes.

That includes stu­dents who are very advanced and some who are just learn­ing Eng­lish,” she says. They deserve more per­son­al­ized attention.”

Her stu­dents are over­whelm­ing­ly Lat­inx, includ­ing many stu­dents who are undoc­u­ment­ed or have par­ents with­out papers, she says. For that rea­son, anoth­er key issue for her is to win sanc­tu­ary school” pro­tec­tions. While Acero’s admin­is­tra­tion has a stat­ed pol­i­cy of refus­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with fed­er­al immi­gra­tion enforce­ment, the union’s pro­posed lan­guage would require them to do so to the fullest extent of our law.

When it’s writ­ten into our con­tract, that ensures that when it comes down to it, they’re going to stick with it,” Baum­garten tells In These Times.

In a state­ment released today, Acero CEO Richard L. Rodriguez’s tout­ed the network’s roots in the Lat­inx com­mu­ni­ty. Our net­work lead­ers are over­whelm­ing­ly peo­ple of col­or raised here in Chica­go or in bor­der com­mu­ni­ty,” the state­ment reads, adding that the sad fact is that inter­ests from out­side our com­mu­ni­ty are using our stu­dents and our schools to advance their nation­al anti-char­ter school platform.”

At a board meet­ing this fall, Rodriguez acknowl­edged that Acero teach­ers earn less than their peers in CPS, but blamed finan­cial constraints.

The Chica­go Pub­lic Schools oper­ate with bil­lions of dol­lars and have the full faith and cred­it of the city of Chica­go to back them up,” he said. Unlike CPS, we don’t have a rich uncle.”

While Acero teach­ers are the only group of Chica­go char­ter edu­ca­tors cur­rent­ly out on strike, con­tract nego­ti­a­tions are pro­ceed­ing between the CTU and 10 oth­er char­ter oper­a­tors. All 11 groups are work­ing from a set of com­mon pro­pos­als hashed out between teach­ers at dif­fer­ent net­works — a nov­el approach that the union hopes will bring up stan­dards across the industry.

That kind of coor­di­na­tion was made pos­si­ble by years of inten­sive char­ter orga­niz­ing in Chica­go, where char­ter union den­si­ty is now the high­est in the nation. Nation­al­ly, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) rep­re­sents approx­i­mate­ly 7,500 edu­ca­tors and staff at more than 230 union­ized char­ter schools in 15 states.

AFT Pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten, who joined Acero teach­ers on the pick­et line this morn­ing, says Chicago’s first-of-its-kind strike holds lessons for the impor­tance of sol­i­dar­i­ty between teach­ers in char­ters and pub­lic schools.

All too often, the busi­ness inter­ests are the ones act­ing in align­ment,” says Wein­garten. So that’s what these teach­ers are doing — over­com­ing divide and con­quer, say­ing, we’re one union.’”

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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