Charter school union fight heats up

Clergy, labor groups draw parallels to Wisconsin

March 18, 2011

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Pro-union Chicago Math and Science Academy teachers and supporters before a board meeting at the school Thursday (WBEZ/Lutton)

Tensions are heating up at a North Side charter school where teachers have formed a union. About two-thirds of the teachers and staff at the Chicago Math and Science Academy signed union cards last school year. Art teacher Kate Ostler, who’s taught at the school for three years, was among them. She said her hope is that a union will improve working conditions for teachers and learning for kids.

“I didn’t like the climate of the school every year when it came to going in there on my own to talk to a principal who it seemed was very hostile to any kind of improvements that I wanted in my working conditions—improvements that would certainly benefit the learning conditions of my kids,” said Ostler.

But Chicago Math and Science Academy has not recognized the teachers’ union.

At issue is whether a charter school is a public or private entity. The schools are publicly funded but privately run. Under state law covering public schools, the union is official. But the school wants to follow federal labor law governing private entities. That would force teachers to hold a vote on whether to unionize—and not all teachers are in support.

Thursday night, clergy, labor groups, and Rogers Park neighborhood residents—many drawing parallels to Wisconsin’s fights public workers’ bargaining rights— turned out to a Chicago Math and Science Academy board meeting to back unionization.

“This is a public school,” said Martha Biondi, a Northwestern University professor who came to the meeting on behalf of a workers rights group. “My [taxes] as a resident of Chicago are supporting this school.”

Charter schools were designed to be free of union rules some say hamstring schools and hinder innovation.

But union organizers affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers have found fertile ground in Chicago charter schools; the city now has eight charter school campuses with union contracts—a year and a half ago, it had none.

Parent Alper Sepehrifar said he believes his daughters are succeeding at Chicago Math and Science Academy precisely because the school hasn’t had a union.

“Here, they push teachers. They push students to stay more, to do more,” Sepehrifar said. “But by being [a] union member you can just say, ‘Oh, no. I’m working until 4 o’clock, and I’m not going to stay.’”

Other parents told CMSA board members they want the union question resolved soon, so they can determine what the future of their school will look like. Some teachers said the issue has divided the school, and they favor a vote by secret ballot on the issue.

James Powers, an attorney representing the school, said CMSA just wants to make sure it’s operating under the correct labor law—whether that’s federal or state.

“There are differences in the topics that can be bargained at the bargaining table, there are differences in the ability to strike… there are differences in the role of each labor board in terms of prosecuting unfair labor practices—there are a host of differences.”

Powers said he’s never discussed with board members or school officials which law would be better for students.

The little school’s pending case before the National Labor Relations Board is a big deal: The country’s two biggest teacher unions, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and Nevada’s attorney general have all filed briefs in the case.

A decision, which may not come for months, could help determine how union issues in other charter schools around the country are handled.