Is Charter School Unrest Chicago’s New Normal? | WBEZ
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Is Charter School Unrest The New Normal In Chicago?

Chicago is in the middle of another strike at a charter school.

More than 2,000 students and about 175 educators at four Chicago International Charter School campuses are affected. This comes just two months after Chicago made history when Acero charter school teachers staged a four-day strike.

It marked the nation’s first charter school walkout.

This kind of labor unrest is new at Chicago’s 121 charter schools.

WBEZ education reporter Adriana Cardona-Maguigad explains what’s prompting it and whether Chicagoans should expect more to come.

How unions came to charter schools

Back in 1997 when charter schools first opened in Chicago, and until recently, charter school unions didn’t exist. But that’s starting to change.

We have to remember, charter schools are funded with public dollars, but are managed by private companies.

Each of them have their own governing boards.

These boards have a lot more autonomy than the boards governing traditional public schools. For years, they were not constrained by union contracts — and that has been one incentive for some elected officials and charter school supporters to open more charter schools over the years.

But over the 10 years, we’ve seen more charter school teachers organizing. Now, 34 charter schools in Chicago are unionized. That’s about 30 percent of all charter campuses. And last year, they really boosted their power by merging with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union.

Teachers at some of these unionized charter schools have threatened to strike in the last few years, but now we’ve turned a new corner with actual strikes. First, the Acero charter school strike in December and now the Chicago International Charter School strike.

Why charter teachers are unionizing

The original idea behind charter schools was to institute new programs and try out new ideas.

And as charters expanded and their numbers grew, many charter operators were also invested in creating a new education market system to create more options for families who were tired of the traditional public school model.

But working conditions at a lot of charters didn’t change much. Charter school operators generally pay less for teachers and staff than at traditional public schools. And until recently, charter schools received less public funding than traditional schools.

These schools also had less oversight from the State Board of Education and, again, were not constrained by union rules.

Some charter school teachers also have felt disenfranchised and became increasingly vocal about high teacher turnover at their schools due to low wages, longer school days, crowded classrooms, and the lack of protections on the job.

“Over the years as this movement began to spread, the conditions in which teachers worked under, and that students learned under, began to worsen,” said Bob Bruno. He leads the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The level of grievance that teachers have felt has escalated.”

Right now, the city’s largest charter network, Noble, is trying to unionize.

So, although Chicago Public Schools has its own challenges, charter school educators want salaries, benefits, and resources that mirror what their CPS colleagues get.

Charter union rights

Charter schools have an organizing advantage over traditional public schools. They operate under the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law that applies to private sector workplaces.

Under the NLRB, charter school unions are able to bargain over things like the length of the school day and class size. They also can strike over those issues.

That’s not the case for members of the Chicago Teachers Union in traditional public schools. State law restricts what CTU can bargain and strike over in those schools. CTU, for example, can’t bargain over class size or the length of the day unless CPS agrees.  

The Chicago Teachers Union and charter unions merger

The charter unions and the Chicago Teachers Union merged last year in a deal that is beneficial all around.

The CTU has huge organizing power and a lot more resources. CTU folks, for example, are handling media relations for the strike taking place now and sending out members and organizers to help.

Another example: CTU helped Acero charter school educators get an agreement with their charter operators that allowed teachers to organize without having management around.

But last year, the CTU along with many unions across the country took a big hit when a U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibited unions from collecting fees from public sector employees who don’t want to join. By bringing in the charter school unions, the CTU increased its membership, and has now been able to craft a more unified message about what public school educators want in Chicago.

Under the CTU, charter school educators have been coordinating strategies to pressure charter school operators collectively. For example, the charter school unions representing two charter school networks —19 schools total — announced hand-in-hand with the CTU the dates for their strike authorization votes.

This shows they are supporting each other even if they have different governing boards. Together, they are pushing charter operators to offer salaries, benefits, and resources similar to what traditional Chicago Public Schools Teachers teachers get.

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

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