By BARBARA MADELONI
Chicago teachers on Dec. 6 launched the first charter school strike in U.S. history.
Members of the United Educators for Justice hit the picket lines that day. The strike involves 550 teachers and paraprofessionals in all 15 Chicago charter schools in the Acero charter chain.
Strikers want to “put a check on privatization and the idea that schools are a business,” said Joanna Wax Trost, a seventh-grade English-language teacher at Acero’s Marquez Elementary School.
“What we are fighting for is bigger than the short term,” she said. “We could potentially let the people who want to privatize and the charter proponents know that there is a potent force to stand against you and protect the kids.”
Teachers at charters work longer hours than their colleagues in the Chicago Public Schools, but are paid on average $13,000 less. The result is teacher churn.
The striking charter teachers are pushing for wages equal to those of their Chicago public school counterparts, as well as smaller class sizes and more funding for special education.
They’re part of the same union as public school teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union, whose 2012 strike sparked a resurgence in education unions across the country. Evidently it also inspired organizing closer to home.
The strikers are demanding more diversity in the workforce. They want to designate all their schools as “sanctuary schools,” off-limits to immigration police; 90 percent of Acero students are Latino.
Those on strike include paraprofessionals who offer extra attention and care to students who need it, especially those with disabilities. Paraprofessionals across the country make up a second tier, paid far less than the teachers they work alongside.
The paras are pushing for increased compensation, a pay scale, paid time off, and opportunities to advance in their careers and become teachers themselves.
Acero used to be called the UNO charter school network. It was started by a now-disgraced Rahm Emanuel ally and union critic, Juan Rangel. It rebranded after a split with the United Neighborhood Organization.
UNO teachers organized in 2014 with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, an AFT affiliate. ChiACTS affiliated with the CTU this year, after members of both unions voted to unite.
Teachers at the chain came close to striking in 2016, but the union was able to reach a last-minute settlement.
Still, that near-strike experience made members more comfortable voting to authorize a strike this time, Wax Trost said.
PARENTS GET IT
ChiACTS chair Chris Baehrend said parents are supporting the strike because they know the charter operators have the money to do better—the funds are just being diverted to management.
Acero Schools CEO Richard Rodriguez, who oversees the education of 8,000 students, is paid more than the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, a district with 350,000 students.
Baehrend estimates that up to one-third of per-pupil funding is siphoned off by the charter industry’s layers of management oversight, rather than meeting classroom needs.
In a press conference the day before the strike, CTU President Jesse Sharkey highlighted a recent audit which showed that the Acero system has $10 million more in reserves than it had a year ago and is pulling in 29 percent more revenue.
To support the striking teachers, parents started a Facebook page. They’ve been organizing meetings, both with and without educators, to spread the word.
“There is a lot of anger in the parent groups’” said Wax Trost. “A lot of parents have seen a decline in the services provided for their children, seen cuts in programs and services (as well as) class size going up.”
THE WHOLE INDUSTRY
This may be the first charter school strike in the country, but given the industry’s problems — and the fact that teachers and staff are finally getting organized — it won’t be the last.
ChiACTS, which represents members in 34 charter schools in Chicago, has lined up contract expiration dates for 33 of those schools—all but one—in what Baehrend says is the beginning of a wave of actions to hold the charter industry accountable to students and parents.
Members in another unionized Chicago charter network have voted to authorize a strike but have not yet set a strike date.
Because of this industry-wide approach, “we see that this is not just our struggle—this is universal,” said Hilary Naffziger, a seventh-grade teacher at Acero’s Carlos Fuentes Elementary School and a member of the bargaining team. “It is really uniting us and helping to build relationships with other teachers.”