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Chicago Charter Schools Uniting For Contract Fight

For the first time ever, unionized teachers at Chicago charter schools on Tuesday took the controversial step of announcing plans to mount a unified push for raises and other noneconomic demands as they hash out new contracts.

The move is meant to leverage their bargaining power, a play the Illinois Network of Charter Schools calls a “political power grab.”

“A defining feature of charter public schools is that they are autonomous, innovative, and flexible,” INCS, which represents charter operators, said in a statement. “The union’s latest move is a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine a model that has proven successful for tens of thousands of Chicago families.”

Although each of the city’s 33 unionized charter schools has a separate contract, this unified push is possible because the charter school union aligned contracts so most expire within the next couple of months.

Unionized charter teachers are relatively new. In fact, many charter operators opened over the last few decades with an express goal of trying to break free of union rules. But a growing number of charter teachers, which are publicly funded but privately run, are opting to unionize.

And this latest development the unified contract push puts Chicago in the vanguard. Representatives from national teachers unions say this is only possible here because so many of its charters have unions. Most school districts have only a few unionized charter schools.

Thirty-three schools with 12 charter operators have unionized to date. That is about a quarter of the 125 Chicago charter schools.

Chris Baehrend, president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff or ChiACTS, said presenting a unified front makes sense. Charter school teachers are still paid less than teachers in traditional district-run schools, he said.

“Right now, working at a charter school is like a second-tier profession,” Baehrend said. “You are going to get a job, but you are going to have way less benefits and longer hours.”

He said charter school unions are aligning demands not only around wages and benefits, but also around noneconomic issues like counselor ratios and class sizes. He said the bargaining units plan to push hard, especially because charter schools recently got a funding boost with the passage of a new education funding law.  

He said that money should be spent on increasing teacher salaries and providing more for classrooms.

State law prevents bargaining units from striking in solidarity with other units, but the fact that the contracts are aligned means several charter school unions could simultaneously threaten to strike.

Illinois Network for Charter School officials also are upset that ChiACTS, the charter school union, recently became a part of the Chicago Teachers Union. However, charters negotiate their contracts separately. District-run public schools have one contract, and each charter school bargaining unit negotiates its own contract.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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