The first charter school strike in U.S. history

December 4, 2018

Nicole Colson looks at the issues that are sending Chicago educators in one of the city’s charter school networks to the picket line in a battle over pay equity.

IN A historic first, charter school teachers in the Acero network in Chicago are prepared to strike on December 4. This will be the first strike against a charter operator in the U.S.

The strike will involve some 500 teachers and support staff and affect just under 8,000 students at the 15 Acero (formerly known as UNO) schools in the city.

In a clear display of their desire to fight for better conditions for themselves and their students, the late October vote to authorize a strike by Acero network teachers and staff — who are members of United Educators for Justice (UEJ), a unit of the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) charter school division — was overwhelming: 96 percent of union members turned out to vote, and 98 percent of those voted to back a strike.

In the same week that UEJ members voted to strike, teachers at four Chicago International Charter School sites, also represented by the CTU, also approved a strike by an overwhelming majority.

Charter school teachers rally for a fair contract in Chicago
Charter school teachers rally for a fair contract in Chicago

Teachers in the Acero network are fighting for many of the same core issues that prompted teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and beyond last spring.

Among other things, they want reduced class sizes, a shorter workday and compensation on par with teachers in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where the 2012 strike by CTU teachers electrified the city.

Across the country, just 11 percent of charter teachers are unionized. This strike will have an impact throughout Chicago and beyond on an industry that continues to draw public money and resources away from public schools toward privatization and for-profit education.

Echoing the CTU’s cry during the 2012 strike that “teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” UEJ members are additionally fighting for demands that focus on the well-being of their 90 percent Latinx student body. These include demanding sanctuary schools for undocumented students, a culturally sustaining curriculum and the retention of more racially diverse teachers — since few of the teachers in the Acero network are Latinx or Spanish-speaking.

At a December 3 press conference, Daniria Dukes, a special education apprentice at Zizumbo Elementary and member of the bargaining team, outlined the key issues for teachers, as well as the particular concerns of apprentices and support staff: a path to teaching, better compensation and paid time off.

The needs of students factor heavily into the demands of these educators and staff, Dukes said:

We want culturally diverse academics for our students. They deserve it. We are in an over 90 percent Latino charter school [network]. They need to see people of color, both men and women in front of them in the classroom. We are definitely going to fight for the compensation, paid time off, adequate work space, and importantly...making sure there is time for special education apprentices to go back to school and become special education teachers, because there is a draught in our network, in the city and nationwide.

Martha Baumgarten, a teacher at Carlos Fuentes Elementary School, pointed out the importance of the demand for sanctuary schools in creating an environment in which students can learn, free from fear:

Many of [our students] are facing immigration issues either themselves or with their families. We are demanding that no information is shared with ICE, that no one is let inside our schools without a warrant, that resources are provided to our families and our staff to help them stay in the country.

AS THE CTU pointed out in a December 3 press release, teachers and support staff at charter schools face larger workloads for less money than educators at public schools, despite the fact that a hefty chunk of money to run charter networks like Acero comes from public dollars:

UNO/Acero educators work hundreds of additional hours per year compared to educators in CPS-run district schools, while charter operators collect 8 percent more per student in funding than CPS schools under Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s so-called “student-based budgeting” scheme, or SBB.

UNO/Acero Management has now come up with a new “proposal” — one which would still force UNO/Acero educators to continue to work, on average, more than 250 hours more and for upwards of over $13,000 less on average in the course of a school year than district educators.

Incredibly, Acero management stonewalled the union for months on handing over a copy of Acero's financial documents — which are supposed to be available to the public — until the morning of November 30. The documents reportedly show the charter network is sitting on a huge surplus — which it could use to better compensate its workers, but will instead likely employ to attempt to break the strike.

According to the CTU, the overdue audit showed that "Management has been denying resources from its schools, and ended 2018 spending $1 million LESS in staff salary costs for program services than in 2017...As of June 2018, ACERO had $24 million in unrestricted cash in its accounts, plus a separate reserve of $4 million in cash as part of its requirements to its bond holders."

As Mother Jones reported, while Richard Rodriguez, the CEO of Acero, has acknowledged to Acero’s school board that teachers are paid less than CPS teachers, he claims Acero doesn’t receive more funding than Chicago district schools. “Unlike CPS, we don’t have a rich uncle,” Rodriguez said. “Acero Schools operates more like a household that must budget.”

But it’s a household where some people are starving while others are living high on the hog.

As a for-profit industry, charter schools heavily exploit teachers and staff in the drive toward cost-cutting and delivering a fat paycheck to management. According to the CTU, Rodriguez earns more per year than CPS CEO Janice Jackson. This is despite the fact that Acero handles some 8,000 students at 15 schools, while Jackson oversees 350,000 students at some 500 public schools. Chris Baehrend, the chair of the CTU’s ACTS charter division, told WGN News in November:

Our bosses are a problem at all of our schools. The days of them taking our taxes and not spending it in the classroom and shortchanging our students are over. These are our schools, and if we have to shut them down to make our employers do what’s right, we’ll do that. This is about changing the charter industry.

IN SOCIAL media messages this weekend, UEJ members explained their reasons for striking.

Adriana Ortiz, an educator at Acero Paz, emphasized the need for more services for special education students and staff: “When the special education staff is understaffed, that means more students are falling through the cracks. A full SPED team...gets them closer to closing the gap between themselves and their grade level.”

In the run-up to the strike date, UEJ members organized rallies at school sites and other events to build support — and CTU members at multiple schools wore their familiar red shirts in support of their UEJ union brothers and sisters.

The display of solidarity was especially important given that a strike against charter operators would also affect the fight to protect Chicago’s public schools from the increasing privatization of education. At the December 3 press conference, CTU President Jesse Sharkey laid out what’s at stake in the UEJ’s fight with Acero:

We’ve watched the maturation of the charter school industry over the last several years. In Acero, we see a charter school that got its origins in a politically connected school, with Juan Rangel attached to what was then called UNO. That charter school network rebranded itself [after Rangel was ousted following a scandal for having family members on the payroll] to Acero.

But rebranding yourself and trying to become a serious educator in the city of Chicago is more than about putting a new nameplate on top of your door. It’s about treating the educators who work in that school seriously, putting serious investment into the resources students need in order to get a high-quality education.

It’s about giving educators the tools they need to deliver that education. That’s really what this contract bargaining is about right now.

As Baehrend told Mother Jones:

We need to change the way that the charter industry works. Traditionally, we’ve had less rights, less pay, and less benefits. At the end of the day, these are our schools. We are increasing our militancy because we know that our demands are possible for our bosses. They are right for our students.

If we are willing to fight to the point of closing our schools down, we will win those rights. We are united in forcing our employers to do the right thing.”

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