Teachers Go On Strike At Chicago Charter Schools

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Teachers rallied outside the Chicago High School for the Arts or ChiArts Wednesday evening as they kicked off strikes affecting four privately run public schools, including ChiArts. Sarah Karp / WBEZ
ChiArts 1
Teachers rallied outside the Chicago High School for the Arts or ChiArts Wednesday evening as they kicked off strikes affecting four privately run public schools, including ChiArts. Sarah Karp / WBEZ

Teachers Go On Strike At Chicago Charter Schools

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Updated at 6:06 a.m.

About 1,000 high school students who attend Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy, Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy and Latino Youth High School are out of class starting Thursday until their teachers reach contract deals. 

A fourth school, the Chicago High School for the Arts or ChiArts, reached a deal in the early hours of Thursday and students are expected to attend classes, according to management. The union has not confirmed that as of early Thursday morning.

The strikes were announced Wednesday evening at a rally in front of ChiArts.

Chris Baehrend, chair of the Chicago Teachers Union charter division, said charter management needs to do the “right thing.”

“Our problem is not with each of these individual employers,” he said. “It is the charter industry that has misplaced priorities. They have business priorities. We have student priorities.”

The head of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten also spoke at the rally. She said 1.6 million members of her union support charter teachers.

“We stand together,” she said. “We stand united.”

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Teachers at four Chicago public schools kicked off strikes Wednesday evening with a rally. The strikes affect 123 teachers and 1,600 students. WBEZ

Instituto said students from its two schools can go to the Rauner YMCA Thursday. Free breakfast and lunch will be served there, and activities will be offered.

Kim Burks, the principal of Instituto Health Sciences, said it is unfortunate that teachers are going on strike. She notes students are preparing to take Advanced Placement tests and participating in other end-of-the-school-year activities.

Burks adds that students from the two Little Village schools, nearly all Latino who come from lower-income families, are vulnerable.

“Coming to school is their only opportunity for a safe place,” she said. “It is their only opportunity for a hot meal. We also have students that are homeless.”

Unions want their teachers to receive the same pay and benefits as those at traditional district-run schools. Currently, all of Chicago’s publicly funded, privately run schools offer different salary packages, and they tend to be well below what CPS pays.

The charter teacher unions are part of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union.

Officials at ChiArts, located in the West Town area, sent an email to parents on Wednesday saying they were doing everything they could to avoid a strike, including negotiating for seven hours that day. School officials say they offered a 24% pay increase over five years and that will mean teachers at the school will be making 92% of what teachers earn at traditional public schools.

But union officials balked at this contention. For one, they note CPS teachers are currently in contract negotiations and will likely be making significantly more money in five years.

Also at issue is whether ChiArts should be paying into the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. Chicago Public Schools and charter schools pay into the pension system, but ChiArts is what’s known as a contract school. Like charter schools, they are privately run, but don’t officially hold a charter and, instead, have a contract with CPS.

Because of this technical difference, ChiArts management is not paying into the pension system, according to the union. ChiArts told parents it would be illegal to do so. In addition, it points out it contributes to a 403(b) retirement plan, which is similar to a 401(k).

But union officials said not only is it legal, but the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund has demanded that contract schools pay in. CTPF is trying to confirm this claim but it didn’t get back to WBEZ with an answer by Wednesday evening.

At the Instituto schools in Little Village, the union argues that too much is paid in management salaries and not enough for teachers. Documents submitted by the school to CPS show that $951,000 was budgeted in 2018-2019 for management fees. That is about 7% of the total expenses for both the schools.

Burks defends that fee. “They [management fees] are a drop in the bucket compared to how much we pay out in salaries, which include pension and benefits,” she said.

In addition to the schools on strike, teachers at four Aspira network charter schools are in the midst of contract negotiations and could go on strike within days or weeks, according to the union. A fifth school, Youth Connection Leadership Academy, announced a deal was reached right before Wednesday’s rally.

Wednesday’s walkout marks the city’s third charter school strike. The first strike in December was the nation’s very first strike at a charter school.

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