Protestors Brave Sub-Zero Weather in Bid To Freeze Chicago’s Charter Expansion

Matthew Blake

The CTU vigil outside the Chicago Public School's headquarters lasted until they were removed by the Chicago police at 7a.m. (Chicago Teachers Union Facebook)

On Tues­day night, a few dozen die-hard Chica­go Teach­ers Union mem­bers and stu­dents braved the bit­ter cold to hold an overnight can­dle­light vig­il out­side the Chica­go Pub­lic School’s down­town head­quar­ters, protest­ing the expan­sion of char­ter schools in the city.

This is the right time for us to be out on the side­walk, here in 11 degree weath­er,” announced CTU orga­niz­er Chris­tel Williams. Char­ter schools are a rack­et and we know it.”

The pro­tes­tors cir­cled CPS offices hold­ing can­dles in one hand and col­or­ful signs with slo­gans like Stop Pri­va­tiz­ing Our City!” and Par­ents Need More Choice? How About a Demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly Elect­ed School Board!” in the oth­er. Cur­rent­ly, the school board is appoint­ed by May­or Rahm Emanuel.

In spite of the so-called polar vor­tex sweep­ing over the Windy City, a few ded­i­cat­ed souls even camped out­side head­quar­ters overnight until the CPS Board of Edu­ca­tion arrived Wednes­day morn­ing to con­sid­er adding 17 new char­ter school cam­pus­es from eight sep­a­rate char­ter networks.

But the board, fol­low­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions of CPS offi­cials, vot­ed to approve sev­en of the char­ter applications. 

Jack­son Pot­ter, a CTU spokesper­son, said that the out­come was dis­ap­point­ing to the union. But he added that, since only sev­en of the 17 were approved, I do think there are some cracks with the light get­ting in. … I think the dis­trict is com­ing under increased scruti­ny for the inabil­i­ty to bal­ance exist­ing schools with charters.”

Con­ceived as an exper­i­ment giv­ing teach­ers and prin­ci­pals auton­o­my from dis­trict-wide cur­ric­u­la, labor lead­ers such as long-term Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers Pres­i­dent Albert Shanker once saw char­ter schools as the­o­ret­i­cal­ly lib­er­at­ing to their mem­bers. In recent years, how­ev­er, char­ters have become Pub­lic Ene­my No. 1 for unions through­out the country.

Despite the ear­ly promise of char­ters for labor, their fac­ul­ties con­tin­ue to be almost entire­ly non-union. More­over, there is arguably lit­tle evi­dence char­ters improve stu­dent per­for­mance, while there is plen­ty to show char­ters weak­en orga­nized labor.

Chica­go began to build char­ters in 1997; they now make up 138 of the district’s 658 schools. The school board recent­ly opened 15 new char­ter cam­pus­es after clos­ing 48 neigh­bor­hood pub­lic schools in sum­mer 2013.

Stephanie Farmer, an assis­tant soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Roo­sevelt Uni­ver­si­ty in Chica­go, points out that Chica­go teach­ers are increas­ing­ly becom­ing non-union. Because CTU has few­er mem­bers than they did 10 years ago, char­ter schools dimin­ish the bar­gain­ing pow­er of the CTU, at least in the short term,” Farmer said.

Though a few char­ter schools have start­ed to orga­nize, Farmer argues, Even if char­ters union­ize, they will still have dif­fer­ent bar­gain­ing units, which lim­its both CTU and char­ter school bar­gain­ing pow­er.” Accord­ing to Farmer, a larg­er bar­gain­ing unit tends to result in a more pow­er­ful union — and, in turn, bet­ter wages and ben­e­fits in contracts.

Bri­an Har­ris, pres­i­dent of the Alliance of Char­ter Teach­ers and Staff, or ACTS, which orga­nizes Chica­go char­ters, agrees with Farmer. Accord­ing to Har­ris, each union­ized char­ter net­work hash­es out its own con­tract with teach­ers. For his part, Har­ris would strong­ly pre­fer hav­ing the col­lec­tive pow­er of all Chica­go teach­ers, or at least all Chica­go char­ter teach­ers, bar­gain­ing together.

Uni­ty always results in bet­ter out­comes for work­ers,” Har­ris says. I think it’s best for teach­ers when they are all orga­nized under the same contract.”

Mean­while, CTU’s oppo­si­tion to char­ters has grown even more heat­ed in the past year.

Fol­low­ing their clo­sures of pub­lic schools CPS judged under­used” due to a lack of stu­dent atten­dance, CPS then raised eye­brows in August 2013 by issu­ing a for­mal request for char­ter school pro­pos­als. CPS spec­i­fied that it want­ed char­ter schools in north­west and south­west Chica­go, parts of the city that are near over­crowd­ed neigh­bor­hood schools. But only five of the 17 new char­ter cam­pus­es under board con­sid­er­a­tion are in these over­crowd­ed zones.

CPS’s quick shift in focus from under-uti­lized to over­crowd­ed schools — with the over­all result being few­er union­ized neigh­bor­hood schools and more char­ters — has pre­dictably infu­ri­at­ed CTU. CPS just con­tin­ues to man­u­fac­ture crises,” claimed Craig Cleve, teacher at Colum­bia Explor­ers Acad­e­my Ele­men­tary School, at Tuesday’s vigil.

In addi­tion to forc­ing some stu­dents into over­crowd­ed envi­ron­ments, the union feels that new char­ter cam­pus­es could actu­al­ly cre­ate coun­ter­pro­duc­tive com­pe­ti­tion with neigh­bor­hood schools over stu­dents and funding.

Kas­san­dra Tsit­sopou­los, a high school teacher at Pross­er Career Acad­e­my on the far West Side, for­mal­ly peti­tioned CPS not to let Noble Net­work Char­ter School build a cam­pus one block away from her school, one of the sev­en pro­pos­als the board approved. It is poor city plan­ning,” Tsit­sopou­los said. You wouldn’t put two hos­pi­tals across from each other.”

Mean­while, an unfold­ing scan­dal at the Unit­ed Neigh­bor­hood Orga­ni­za­tion (UNO) char­ter school net­work has embold­ened the union’s past claims that polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed insid­ers play major roles in run­ning char­ters. For exam­ple, CTU Pres­i­dent Karen Lewis has accused char­ter net­work board mem­bers (like Illi­nois guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Bruce Rauner) of being oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly inter­est­ed in the lives of minor­i­ty chil­dren in order to accom­plish objec­tives such as weak­en­ing unions.

Last month, Juan Rangel, co-chair­man of Emanuel’s may­oral cam­paign, resigned as head of UNO after the Chica­go Sun-Times uncov­ered ram­pant nepo­tism in the char­ter network’s des­ig­na­tion of con­struc­tion contracts.

But even as Rangel’s tra­vails shook the network’s faith in its lead­er­ship, they also deliv­ered the char­ter teach­ers’ union a major vic­to­ry. Har­ris said that after the bad press of the Rangel inci­dent, UNO did not offer resis­tance to a union­iza­tion cam­paign. The first con­tract is now in the process of nego­ti­a­tion; union­iza­tion of UNO’s schools would near­ly dou­ble the num­ber of ACTS-rep­re­sent­ed cam­pus­es from 14 to 27.

Har­ris, though, was adamant that unions and char­ters can­not ulti­mate­ly exist in har­mo­ny. A lot of char­ter schools are oper­at­ed by peo­ple ide­o­log­i­cal­ly opposed to unions,” Har­ris said in an inter­view Tues­day. With the excep­tion of UNO and one oth­er school, we have had man­age­ment fight­ing us tooth and nail to pre­vent us from unionizing.”

Matthew Blake is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. He has writ­ten for the Chica­go Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, Wash­ing­ton Inde­pen­dent and The Nation, among oth­er publications.
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