Charter School Teachers Picket Ahead Of Possible Strike | WBEZ
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Charter School Teachers Picket Ahead Of Possible Strike

One of Chicago’s largest charter school networks may go on strike next week.

Staff at the UNO Charter School Network, commonly referred to as UCSN, voted last week to authorize a strike Oct. 19 if they don’t reach a tentative contract agreement first.

No charter school in the country has had a teachers’ strike since the publicly-funded, privately-run schools were created in the 1990s.

“That’s really historically interesting, but that is not at all what we want to drive our motivation to do this,” said Caroline Hackett, a member of the bargaining team. “We would rather not strike.”

The teachers at the charter school chain have been bargaining for a new contract for months, and said the key sticking points are keeping class sizes below 32 students and increasing pay for support staff like teachers aides.

Most charter schools do not have unionized teachers. The Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, or ChiACTS, has 10 councils that represent a total of 32 schools. The United Educators at UNO is one of those councils.

In 2013, in the wake of a patronage scandal that split UNO and UCSN, teachers at the charter chain joined ChiACTS and operate under federal labor law.

The management of UCSN said they will “continue working in earnest to reach an agreement that is fair to our employees and, most importantly, allows us to continue providing the quality education for which UCSN is known.”

UCSN serves more than 8,000 students at 15 schools.

Officials from the charter school chain said any agreement has to work within the network’s current financial picture. Over the summer, more than two dozen school-based positions were cut after the network lost a total $5.7 million from the district, state and federal revenue streams they rely on.

The cuts didn’t sit well with parents and teachers, who said students have lost critical support, like technology teachers and counselors.

Hackett said before UCSN cut classroom spending, they should have moved their offices out of downtown.

“We want them to put that money and that focus into our schools and not into rent at 209 W. Jackson,” Hackett said at a picket outside the UCSN offices Thursday.

Charter advocates have called into question why the USCN teachers are poised to strike.

“One has to question what are the motivations of the CTU are in those negotiations,” said Greg Richmond, who used to run the district’s office of charter schools and now leads the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “Are their motivations to really represent the interests of the teachers or are their motivations to embarrass a bunch of charter schools?”

This year, ChiACTS entered into a service agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union to provide additional field organizers and support staff to ChiACTS represented schools, including the United Educators at UNO.  

Robert Bloch, the same attorney who successfully reached a deal between CTU and CPS, is also representing the United Educators at UNO, but said it’s not on behalf of the CTU.

“In my practice, I represent dozens of unions,” Bloch said.

Others took issue with the premise of a strike at a charter school in the first place, given that charters were initially meant to be “laboratories of innovation”.

“While charter school teachers are free to unionize, doing so can back them into many of the bureaucratic practices that charter schools, by their nature, are trying to avoid – and which don’t foster the kind of dedicated innovation we need to serve kids,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “A teachers’ strike is a prime example of this, and we hope the committed educators of UNO Charter School Network are able to reach a solution that keeps them in the classroom, and keeps kids learning.”

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @wbezeducation.

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