Updated March 6, 9:45 am
Charter schools were first created in the 1990s as a way to try to improve public education in Chicago and the nation. They were founded on the idea that they could avoid demands from unions while maintaining a level of autonomy and innovation.
But now, more than two decades later, many of these ideas are being thrown into question in Chicago, where about one-fourth of all charter schools have unionized and staff at 24 schools walked off the job last school year.
Teachers at these schools began to collectively push their agenda forward under the umbrella of the Chicago Teachers Union a little over a year ago. Their overall goal was to match salaries and support available in traditional Chicago Public Schools. They also hoped to end excessive teacher turnover at many of these schools.
In many ways, they succeeded. Their new contracts in place this school year include more support for students in the classroom, higher salaries for teachers and support staff and shorter school days.
But charter school advocates say the new contracts risk undercutting the very heart of what makes them different than traditional public schools. Most schools had to tighten their belts and cut administrative staffing, programs and some teaching positions.
“It’s very disappointing that we have a situation in which schools are being forced to lay off teachers, because they are not allowed the autonomy and flexibility to staff in the way that best meets student needs,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “The hallmarks of the charter movement is innovation. And it’s hard to innovate when you’re bound by a very restrictive contract.”
Broy says charters need more funding to pay for these more expensive contracts. He’s been advocating for a funding formula that could yield more dollars to charters over time in recent years.
Union leaders disagree. They believe the funding is there, but more of it needs to get into the classroom. These contracts are a way of forcing charter schools to, at the very least, rethink their priorities, they say.
“If their business model doesn’t allow them to spend a comparable amount of money in the schools on staff salaries, on resources and keeping class sizes small, then their business model is a bad one, and it shouldn’t exist,” said Chris Baehrend, who represents charter schools for the CTU.
New charter contract costs
There are currently 126 charter schools in Chicago. These schools, which get public funds but are run by private organizations, were launched with the goal of transforming public education.
To help make that happen, charter school teachers often work longer hours and are paid less than traditional public school teachers. Many are staffed by teachers fresh out of college.
But as the charter movement grew, so did teacher expectations. Now, many want salaries and benefits that match those of their CPS counterparts. This, plus demands for more resources in the classroom, motivated hundreds of teachers at 32 charters and one contract school (also run by private groups), to unionize in recent years.
Strikes soon followed to force these changes. Last school year, teachers at 24 charter schools walked off the job. The first network of schools to strike, Acero Schools, was also the first charter school in the nation to walk off the job.
And now, a year later, charter school operators say they are paying a price.
The two largest charter school networks, Acero with 15 schools and four Chicago International Charter School campuses, combined saw a total of 20 layoffs to administrative positions. Acero saw 18 of those layoffs, totaling more than $1 million in non-union salaries. This included instructional coaches, deans of students and central office administrators.
Two smaller charter schools, serving a combined 1,200 students, let go of at least eight support staff this school year, including a library assistant and a college counselor.
“There simply aren’t enough dollars per pupil, per year, and I think that’s a real challenge,” Elizabeth Shaw, CEO of Chicago International Charter School, who oversees 14 campuses, said last winter. Teachers at four CICS schools walked out soon after the Acero strike.
Making matters worse, the new contracts come at the same time that enrollment in Chicago schools is declining, impacting both charter and traditional schools. Schools are funded based on how many students they enroll. Unlike traditional schools, charter schools also have to cover the costs of their facilities.
Aside from cutting two non-union positions, charter school officials had to make other adjustments. For CICS, this included moving offices, rethinking large contracts for computers and leasing.
“Everywhere we spent money we had to figure out where to consolidate,” said LeeAndra Khan, the CEO of Civitas Education Partners, the school management organization that runs the four CICS campuses that went on strike. The fees for Civitas and the other school management organizations that run CICS schools was cut by 38%, CICS officials said.
Khan said they are managing this year, but she is worried about whether they could pull it off in the years to come. Khan said it could end up limiting their ability to fully staff some classrooms, and “we will have to reimagine what deans and security guards look like potentially.”
The CICS’ management structure has been criticized by some teachers and union leaders because they say it diverts money from students to middle management positions. Civitas is one of three organizations hired by CICS to run some of its campuses.
“I don’t think this model is as different as people think it is,” Khan said. “There are layers to every organization.”
But as the charter movement transforms, she worries whether this will end up watering down the very essence of what makes charter schools different. “[I] wonder … if contracts like this make charter schools look just like [traditional] CPS schools,” she said.
“Huge increase in staffing”
Teachers at Acero Schools, which services a mostly Latino student population, say the new contracts are helping their students and forcing operators to reprioritize their spending.
“We have kindergarten apprentices in every single one of our kindergarten classrooms now, which was a huge increase in staffing where we need it most,” said Caroline Rutherford, a union leader and art teacher at one of the Acero schools. “We also have … increased the amount of bilingual teachers that we have throughout the network.”
Teachers also point to the prospect of reduced teacher turnover and greater stability at their schools now that salaries have gone up.
Officials at Acero say the cuts made to afford the new contracts have forced them to think creatively, including asking non-union positions to do more with less.
“I’ll use myself as an example,” said Helena Stangle, chief external affairs officer at Acero. “I am charged with communications … but I also look after the enrollment strategy.
But will that be enough long term? As contract demands increase over time, a big question looms: Can unionized charter schools stay afloat as they try to meet their new obligations?
A look at their financial information yields few answers. Financial documents and budgets for these schools are often opaque and incomplete. In general, there is a lack of transparency around charter schools, and public records only show a glimpse of the full picture. This was a topic of intense discussion at a recent meeting of the Chicago Board of Education, which approves and ultimately oversees charter schools in the city.
As time marches on — and the pressure only grows to meet new contract demands while also living up the original mission to be innovative — understanding the bottom line for charter schools will undoubtedly only grow in importance.
This story was updated to include more details on cuts at Chicago International Charter School.