The Chicago Teachers Union and the school district have an agreement on the longer school day, but the two sides still say they are "far apart” on issues like wages and benefits. And the union has said a strike is not off the table.
If there were a strike, it would take place in a whole new context, one that has national eyes focused on Chicago.
If Chicago teachers walk out, there will be 50,000 kids still in school.
Outside William Penn Elementary School on the city’s West Side, you can sort of imagine where a picket line might be set up if Chicago Teachers Union teachers walk out on strike--somewhere near the large painted "Welcome" sign just off the sidewalk. But in this same building, at an entrance about 50 feet away, is the sign for a charter school: Kipp-Ascend. If Penn teachers strike, KIPP teachers will be at work, and hundreds of students will pass the picket line and walk into school. That scenario could be repeated across the city.
"We’ve never had this dynamic occur in the country where there’s been a major urban area considering a teachers strike while they had a large charter sector," says Andrew Broy, head of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.
"So we’ll have some portion of public schools students going to school, some portion of teachers going to school to educate those students, while the rest of the teachers aren’t."
Right now, folks on all sides of the equation are trying to figure out what that would mean.The city has over 100 charter schools. All would be open if teachers strike. More than 50,000 kids would be in class, about 13 percent of the district.
Broy says charter schools’ phones are ringing.
"We’ve had a number of charter schools in our network who’ve been contacted by parents who’ve heard about a strike happening, and are saying, 'Look, do you have seats available?'"
Broy says about a third of charter schools do have seats, and he wants the district to increase the number of students charter schools are allowed to take if union teachers do walk out. "Because ultimately our goal is not just to represent the charter sector, but to make sure the children of Chicago have access to education," he says. "I don’t think anybody wants 350,000 students to be out for a long time."
Broy is betting that parents will see things the way WaConda Curington does. She has four children in charter schools.
"I would say as a parent, I am relieved that my kids will continue to go to school. Because that’s not fair to the children of CPS. They’re gonna be at a disadvantage," said Curington. "I mean it’s sad, but at the same time, I guess I would say I am thankful that my kids are not a part of that system."
Charter schools begin the new school year
Charter school co-teachers Ryan Buchanan and Liz Koonce were already at work last week setting up their fourth-grade classroom at one of the city's five LEARN charter school campuses.
"It was a short summer, but it’s good for the kids that they get back so quickly, and their retention is a lot better," said Buchanan, age 23, as he carefully wrote student names onto clothes pins for the class behavior chart.
Koonce agrees. "As a teacher, I want the best for my kids. I understand both sides. I come from a school where there was a union, so I understand the benefits of that."
Koonce is 25. She used to teach in a suburban district. She isn’t supposed to say how much she makes at LEARN. But on average, Chicago charter teachers make $20,000 less per year than their CPS counterparts. Part of that is because charter teachers tend to be younger and less experienced. But even adjusting for that, Broy says they make between $8,000 and $12,000 less.
Early Wednesday morning Koonce will be greeting her new students on their first day of school. Look for the city to highlight the fact that teachers like Koonce and Buchanan work longer days and longer school years, while union teachers push for more money.
But not everyone thinks those 50,000 charter school kids will be an advantage for the city in contract negotiations.
"I don’t think it figures into either side’s leverage. I think it figures into both sides’ estimations of what a mess it would be if there were a strike," says Don Rose. The Chicago political consultant says charter school students would be "collateral damage" if charters stay open while teachers are on strike.
"They will be confronted by picket lines. It is even possible that they will be heckled by students whose teachers are out on strike, or their teachers will be heckled. This will just be a further flouting and re-angering of those who oppose charter schools."
Elizabeth Purvis has lived through this. She runs Chicago’s biggest charter school network, and kept a charter school open in Rockford last spring when teachers there went on strike.
"We were prepared for people to picket our schools, but no problem. We have a number of the children of public school teachers. They dropped their kids off at school…not a ripple." But charter schools are still a tiny percentage of schools in Rockford and haven't attracted the same level of opposition as they have in Chicago.
The growth of charters has depleted the ranks of the Chicago Teachers Union. Every time the union has negotiated a contract over the last decade, it’s come to the table representing fewer members. Thirty-three thousand in 2003. Thirty-two thousand for the last contract, agreed to in 2007. Today, the union says there are 25,500 members in the CTU's bargaining unit.
Still, union official Jackson Potter says he does not see the 50,000 charter kids in classes as a threat. He points to a Chicago Tribune poll that found parents trust the union's reform proposals more than the school district's.
"We have a rich history in this city of parents taking on the Board of Education when they think there’s injustice," says Potter.
Potter says the union is fighting for more than just wages—it wants air conditioning, playgrounds, and social services for kids, and he thinks parents understand that.
And far from talking about charter school teachers as scabs, Potter is looking to build bridges between the union and charters.
"There's a lot of solidarity that I don't think people recognize or understand," says Potter. "I think we could see a number of interesting scenarios, where charter teachers are picketing with us, where charter teachers are talking about what rights they don’t have, and what rights they want, and thinking about ways to organize these buildings so that they're not treated with disrespect."
One thing all sides agree on: unions and charter advocates across the country will be watching.