Chicago's Second Charter School Strike Starts | WBEZ
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Chicago's Second Charter School Strike Starts

Updated 2:35 pm

More than 2,000 charter school students across Chicago were out of class on Tuesday after staff at four schools walked out Monday night in Chicago’s second charter school teacher strike. This comes two months after Chicago made history when Acero charter school teachers were the first to strike.

About 175 unionized teachers and staff at four Chicago International Charter Schools picketed Tuesday morning. They negotiated until late Monday with their charter operator but couldn't reach a deal.

Chicago International Charter Schools has 14 campuses but only four of them — all managed by Civitas Education Partners — went on strike late Monday.

At the Wrightwood elementary campus on the South Side, about 65 people picketed outside Tuesday morning  Many of them approached parents dropping off their children and encouraged them to keep their kids out of school.  

“We have to support our teachers because they spend more time with our kids than we do,” said Caameisha Shepherd, a parent of a fourth grader. “So if I have to keep her home or take her to work with me, that’s what’s gonna happen for the rest of the week until their needs are met.”

The decision to walk came after months of failed talks, primarily around the length of the school day, instructional time, and pay.

"CICS has spent nine months at the bargaining table stringing our members along," CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in a statement Monday night. "They’ve forced us to be on the picket line, and we will shut these schools down."

Throughout the negotiations, union leaders argued the salary increases offered by their charter school operators was in exchange for fewer counselors and social workers.

Charter school officials deny ever suggesting such a swap. They say they offered teachers and staff a salary hike that amounts to 28 percent over four years. But they note that a loss in student enrollment has cut into what it can spend at the Ralph Ellison and ChicagoQuest campuses.

Union leaders aren’t buying that. They claim school officials have about $36 million in reserves, money that should go for salary increases, better health care benefits, and classroom needs. Charter school leaders argue they have about half that much in their reserves — which is less than what the State Board of Education recommends.   

In a statement, CICS officials said it is "deeply disappointed that the Chicago Teachers Union has chosen to strike." They also say Civitas Education Partners has refused to accept requests to reduce the length of the school day, decrease instructional time, or give up their ability to fire teachers that are performing poorly.   

The union and school leaders met Tuesday morning to continue negotiating.

The four striking schools serve mostly low-income African-American students and are represented by two unions.

The Chicago Quest Union represents ChicagoQuest High School while Civitas Federation for Teachers represents the Northtown Academy High School, Wrightwood Elementary, and Ralph Ellison High School. These unions merged with the Chicago Teachers Union last year, significantly increasing their bargaining power and organizational might.

Similar to other charter schools, CICS schools receive public funds but are managed by five different private groups.

Civitas Education Partners officials kept the schools open for families who need a place for their children. They had planned to hire about 20 non-union substitute teachers to cross the picket line to work alongside school principals.

“We feel like it is our responsibility to our students and our families to be open for them,” Civitas Education Partners CEO LeeAndra Khan said. “Going on strike puts a significant burden on families, particularly families who work jobs that don’t necessarily allow them to take off.”

But union leaders were outraged and ultimately no subs were hired, CICS officials confirmed. Teachers also tried to discourage parents from dropping off their kids.

It seemed to be working. Only about 7 percent of students came to school on Tuesday, though three of the schools are high schools and those students can generally look after themselves. The schools were offering online and recreational activities and breakfast and lunch.

At Northtown High School, just one student turned up, according to Principal Torry Bennett. She is concerned about homeless students and students with special needs missing out on school.

“It’s incredibly discouraging,” Bennett said. “I … support the [teachers’] right to act as a collective unit and to strike for what it is they believe that they need. While I support that, it is always disappointing when adults are trying to work out problems and students and children are penalized.”

This is the third charter school strike in the nation. One occurred in Los Angeles last month.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.

Correction: This story and headline have been updated to give the correct number of charter school strikes nationally.

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