Can the Nation’s First Charter School Strike Transform the Industry?

For the first time, charter school teachers are striking. Over the past week, a strike at Chicago’s largest unionized charter network gained steam, with 15 schools serving Acero’s 7,500 predominantly Latino students remaining closed since Tuesday.

This week’s strike is the first in the nation against a charter operator, and comes only days after Acero released a financial audit showing that the nonprofit currently has at least $24 million in cash and brought in $89 million in revenue this year.

Despite having $10 million more than it had at the end of 2017, Acero managed to spend $1 million less on salaries this year, only giving their teachers a “paltry” wage increase, according to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), and no raise at all to the schools’ support staff.

While charter teachers are typically paid $13,000 less than those in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), charter schools bring in 8 percent more per student in funding than CPS under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s so-called “student-based budgeting” scheme, which gives each school a fixed amount of money per student enrolled.

After months of failed contract negotiations, 98 percent of Acero teachers authorized a strike in October and joined picket lines this week, demanding salary increases, smaller class sizes, additional special education staff and guaranteed sanctuary protections for undocumented students and families.

“Charter operators are creating a second tier in the teaching profession. Your job at a charter school, your pay, benefits, your rights, your ability to speak up for students, all these things are way below [public school district] standards,” said Chris Baehrend, who chairs CTU’s charter division and taught English for seven years at Chicago’s Latino Youth High School, a charter school, before going on leave to work for the union.

CTU was strengthened in March after merging with The Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, representing more than 30 charters in the city. Thirty-four of Chicago’s 128 charter school campuses – more than a quarter of its charter schools – are now unionized. Another charter network, Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) has also authorized a strike, but has not yet set a date. Teachers at nine other Chicago charter networks are likewise negotiating contracts, and could similarly authorize strikes in the coming weeks.

Union negotiators worked to establish a core set of contract proposals last spring, and are now advancing the proposals across all 11 bargaining tables, according to Baehrend, in hopes of raising salaries and benefits more systemically across the charter industry.

Baehrend, who is regularly in touch with union members on the bargaining team, told Truthout there hasn’t been any significant movement on any bargaining items that would cost the network money, causing the negotiations to drag on.

With just 11 percent of charter teachers unionized across the country, the ongoing strike is likely to have a ripple effect in an industry that draws public resources away from public schools and represents part of a larger effort to privatize education. The strike is already making a dent locally, with state representatives announcing the introduction of legislation designed to reform the charter industry this week.

State Representatives Chris Welch, Robert Martwick and Will Guzzardi are proposing a raft of bills that would place a cap on CEO pay, establish minimum requirements for school spending, create local school councils for additional oversight, limit charter school expansion in financially troubled districts like CPS, and prevent for-profit management companies from operating charter schools. The new legislation ups the stakes for Acero, formerly UNO Charter Schools, which has already come under public scrutiny after a series of corruption scandals.

“I’m hoping this strike will be a catalyst for other teachers to unionize and stand up and say, ‘Charters have operated for too long without accountability,’” said Katie Cannady, who teaches Kindergarten at Acero’s Brighton Park Campus. “It’s frustrating because everybody in the building can be on the same team, but the person holding the purse strings is keeping them closed tight, and then not even for a lack of funding; it’s just corporate greed.”

Indeed, the strike is already catching the attention of other charter teachers, both in Chicago and elsewhere in the US. Baehrend tells Truthout that several teachers in Chicago who are not yet unionized have reached out to CTU after hearing about the strike. Moreover, the union has received an outpouring of messages in solidarity from charter teachers in Michigan, New Orleans, Cleveland and elsewhere.

Charter networks are allowed and funded by public money in 44 states, and charter teachers across the country face many of the same issues, so organizers say the Chicago strike has the potential to reverberate far and wide.

“I would say this strike is the opening salvo, the beginning of a wave of militant unionism in defense of our students in the charter sector, where for a long time the assumption was, ‘Well, you work for a charter school, your interests must be the same as the charter operators’ interest,’” Baehrend says. “That is in fact not the case. Our interests are students’ interests and charter operators’ interests are business interests, and that contradiction is coming to a crisis point and becoming very clear in these negotiations.”

Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez seems to have acknowledged the nature of that crisis himself: He defended the charter industry by blaming union organizers for pushing an “anti-charter political agenda.”

While rank-and-file teachers like Cannady acknowledge some of the systemic issues with schools operated under a charter, for her, the struggle comes down to providing her students with adequate resources to achieve the best possible education. She’s one of the “lucky” ones at Acero: Her class is under-enrolled at a whopping 28 students.

“Acero doesn’t give us enough resources to adequately serve the students that are in our neighborhood and in our school, who are overwhelmingly low-income students of color,” she says. Many of her students need bilingual support, for instance, and she frequently has to buy her own supplies.

Cannady says she often thinks about switching to a public school, or maybe even making a shift in her career entirely. After six years of teaching, she says “It’s tough to stay in a charter system” on her current salary. “When you’re paid so little, teachers leave so often, and it’s not fair for kids, and so the kids and the city that are already historically disadvantaged, are more so.”

Her colleagues also tell her they frequently consider moving on. Many do: Acero’s pay disparity has caused a high turnover rate at the networks’ 15 schools, according to CTU. While Rodriguez touts Acero as “one of the best performing charter networks in Chicago,” Baehrend points out that the networks’ turnover rate reveals a fundamental flaw.

“The fact that you can overwork and burn out teachers and have them on a churn-and-burn system … is not a measure of success for [their] model,” he says.

Chicago’s charter network teachers join educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and Colorado, among others, who left classrooms and converged on state capitols this year to fight for higher salaries and increased funding for public schools. In a show of solidarity with teachers elsewhere, charter teachers in Chicago have been wearing red at school as part of the national “Red for Ed” movement.

Like teachers in predominantly red states, teachers with the Acero network often have to take a second job just to make ends meet, Baehrend said. Cannady told Truthout she would have to consider taking a second job if she didn’t have the support of her husband, and said that financial concerns have contributed to her decision to delay child-bearing for the time being.

But unlike many teachers striking across the country, charter educators also face the issue of exorbitant management fees paid by CPS to charter administrators. According to CTU, charter management fees paid to CICS, for instance, rose to $4.5 million this year, from $3.3 million in 2017.

Charter teachers in Chicago also say accountability is desperately needed to ensure charters meet minimum legal requirements for diverse learners and bilingual education, among other institutional issues. Not only that, but the operators fight dirty when teachers try to organize and speak up about violations.

“Charter operators will spend our public tax dollars to hire union avoidance lawyers, and then, when they break the law, they will use our tax dollars to pay the fines imposed the [National Labor Relations Act]. Those are tax dollars taken from students,” says Baehrend. “So they’re taking resources away from our students in order to pay themselves to violate federal laws.”

In addition to focusing on salaries and class sizes, Acero teachers’ demands for sanctuary policies provide a blueprint for both charter and public teachers across the US looking to ensure that schools don’t share information with federal immigration enforcement officials or allow them onto campuses without a warrant.

“We are responsible to making those kids, those students, those babies and those parents feel safe,” Cannady said. “We need explicit language, especially in 2018, especially with everything going on on the broader national scale…. We need language that says, ‘Parents, you can trust that your child can come to school, can learn, and they won’t be hunted down in their classrooms by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] or reported by the state,’ because this is their haven.”