In Chicago, Tentative Agreement Reached In First U.S. Charter School Strike

Charter Union Strike Ends
Chris Baehrend, the Chicago Teachers Union charter division chair, celebrates the news of the tentative agreement at a CTU rally on Sunday. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
Charter Union Strike Ends
Chris Baehrend, the Chicago Teachers Union charter division chair, celebrates the news of the tentative agreement at a CTU rally on Sunday. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

In Chicago, Tentative Agreement Reached In First U.S. Charter School Strike

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The nation’s first charter schools strike has ended. More than 500 teachers and nearly 7,500 students at Acero charter schools in Chicago are going back to class on Monday after days of intense negotiations between school officials and union leaders.

Both sides reached a tentative agreement on Sunday morning, which calls for smaller class sizes, increases in salaries for educators, and the restructuring of the working day.

Andy Crooks is the council chair for United Educators for Justice (UEJ) at Acero Schools, and has been negotiating with school officials for months.

“Today our students and our families have won, bottom line,” he said.

“Whether it is through equal pay in our classrooms to keep our teachers in our classroom so that we have stability for their educational growth, whether it’s to have sanctuary schools to keep our students safe and ICE out.”

Crooks managed additional wins for teachers, which included a paid schedule for support staff with livable wages and smaller class size. 

“I have to say we won all of those things and then some, because of all of our members and our families and our students,” he said on Sunday, surrounded by union members and supporters at a rally at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters on the West Side.

For months, officials from Acero Charter Schools, formerly known as UNO, have pushed back on the demands coming from unionized Acero teachers. Class size and teacher salaries were among the most debated issues.

Acero officials tried to put pressure on teachers to end the strike by filing a federal labor complaint against the union Friday afternoon, calling the strike illegal and mentioning other alleged violations from strikers while they were on the picket line.

But after pressure from elected officials, parents, and educators, Acero officials arrived at an agreement with the union Sunday morning.

Acero’s CEO Richard Rodriguez who manages 15 Acero campuses sent out a statement early Sunday praising the bargaining teams.

“We were able to reaach an agreement that values teachers and staff for the important work they do, while still maintaining the attributes of our network that help produce strong educational outcomes for our students,” he said. 

Class size was an issue that kept both sides going back and forth for days. Acero and union officials have agreed on lowering the class size from 32 down to 30 students beginning next school year. “Both parties agreed to do so with an assurance that changes will not impact existing Acero Schools students,” said Helena Stangle Chief External Affairs Officer for Acero schools.

500 union delegates still have to vote on the tentative agreement. Acero officials also have to run this new agreement by the Acero board.

“If either side says “no” we are right back at it,” said Crooks.

After months of slow negotiations with charter school operators, union leaders threaten to strike if talks didn’t move forward. Unionized educators gave Acero officials a deadline. But when they ran out of time on last Tuesday, teachers and support staff were at the picket line..

This strike became extremely difficult for Acero’s 7,500 mostly Latino students and their parents. Some had to figure out where to send their kids. Acero officials kept all 15 schools opened and offered students breakfast and lunch, but some parents preferred not to take their children to the empty buildings.

Adriana Ocotoxtle is single mother of three, who took her two oldest kids to the local Burger King restaurant where she works. Her kids go to Acero’s Marquez elementary.

“It’s really hard to pay attention to them while trying to do my job in the kitchen,” said Ocotoxtle. She said that she supports the teachers on their fighting to better the schools, but hoped they’ll find a resolution soon.

Maria Lopez is another concerned Acero parent. Her kids attend Acero’s Octavio Paz Elementary.

“I am worried because this will affect the student academically. We are not going to take back the days that we lost,” she said.

Regardless of the issues that remain unresolved, this new contract is a big win for educators said Chicago Teacher Union officials.

They’ve criticized Acero’s CEO Richard Rodriguez for earning more than the CEO of Chicago Public Schools Janice Jackson while managing only 15 campuses.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools says the union has long been pushing an agenda to undercut charter schools. In a statement Melissa Cooper the INCS director of communications said, “This is the wrong approach. A student-centered focus would preserve, not diminish, instructional time.”

Both Acero and Union officials say the new agreement won’t cut instructional time from students.

Earlier this year, members of the UEJ, the union that represents Acero schools joined the Chicago Teachers Union charter division, which represents a total of 34 schools, many of those are in simultaneous contract negotiations with their charter operators.

In the last two decades, Chicago has experienced a rapid expansion of charter schools. Elected officials and charter operators have long promoted the creation of these publicly funded and privately run schools as an alternative to public education. The idea behind the expansion was to transform the traditional neighborhood school model and create schools that were more independent from school boards.

But union leaders have long argued charter schools operators have undermined protections for teachers and the role public school boards play at keeping school officials accountable.

“This strike represented the movement for fair paid, for resources into our classrooms that we saw swift through west Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma,” said Jesse Sharkey president of the Chicago Teacher Union at a recent rally.

“The charter industry was premised on the idea that it could kind of create a labor condition, that workers wouldn’t be unionized, that they will work longer hours that could bring young people in the profession and that’s just not a good model to run a sustainable institution” 

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