Chicago teachers are making history again. Educators at Acero Schools have just reached a tentative deal with their employer after staging the first charter school strike in the nation. After nearly a week of walkouts, the teachers will return to the classroom after the charter network agreed to raises, smaller class sizes, and protections for undocumented students.
The more than 500 educators who walked out last week are members of a charter division of the Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU, which staged a hugely influential strike in 2012 that hit a national nerve. And, like with the 2012 strike, a whole host of inequality-related issues were brought front and center by the walkout, from school closings to executive pay and immigration.
Most of the teachers’ demands centered on improving learning conditions in the classroom. Reductions in the 32-student class size, increased special education funding, and more time for lesson planning were just a few of the issues at play. Educators were also pushing for raises — a CTU statement said that Acero was spending $1 million less in program salary costs in 2018 than it did in the previous year.
Acero head Richard Rodriguez was displeased that his network was at the center of the nation’s first charter school strike, and attempted to discredit the walkouts. “Interests from outside our community are using our students and our schools as a means to advance their national anti-charter school platform,” he said in a statement posted on YouTube.
Rodriguez takes home around $260,000 a year to preside over 15 Acero schools — roughly what Chicago Public Schools head Janice Jackson makes to manage more than 500. Several Acero administrators make more than six figures, in fact, even as the school network’s paraprofessionals effectively make less than $30,000 when factoring in pension payments.
But as Alia Wong and Natalia Escobar wrote in The Atlantic, the comparative lack of teacher power is seen by charter advocates as a feature, rather than a bug, of their preferred education model. “This heightened partisan tug-of-war over charter schools can in part be attributed to the idea that their role as so-called innovation laboratories is predicated on them being free from the constraints imposed by collective bargaining.”
As Harvard education professor Martin West told The Atlantic, the strikes are also notable because teachers are bargaining directly with the charter operator over the use of already-existing funds, rather than asking for more funds from the government. And as Chris Baehrend, the chair of CTU’s charter division, told Labor Notes, teachers and educators alike know that charter operators like Acero have the money to do better. But instead of paying fair wages and providing critical services, they’re just diverting the money to management.
The charter school’s own financial statements show there’s no need for austerity. Acero is flush with cash, according to a CTU statement based on figures provided to them by the network itself. The network has at least $24 million in unrestricted cash, “yet they remain unwilling to provide a penny more in compensation to paraprofessionals, their lowest wage workers,” the statement says.
That practice isn’t limited to Acero, CTU warns. Charter schools are getting increased state funding, an October report from the union found, but the money’s not making its way to educators or into the classroom. Despite the fact that charter schools get an 8 percent funding increase in comparison to district schools, their teachers are among the city’s lowest paid. Meanwhile, the report says, “one charter operator spends as much on management staff with the word “chief” in the job title as it does on all special education staff in its network.”
“The days of them taking our taxes and not spending it in the classroom, and short changing our students, are over,” Baehrend told Chicago local news. “These are our schools, and if we have to shut them down to make our employers do what’s right, we’ll do that. This is about changing the charter industry.”
The changes they’re demanding aren’t all related to school financing, either. One of the key negotiating items for the union was the protection of undocumented students at Acero’s predominantly Latinx schools. The teachers demanded — and won — a written commitment that Acero schools would be a sanctuary for undocumented students. The tentative agreement keeps the operator from collecting information on the immigration status of students, families, and educators. It also keeps immigration enforcement officials out of the schools unless they have a court order.
Bargaining demands over racial equity in schools are all the more important given the spate of school closings across Chicago over the last several years. About 200 schools have either closed or faced a radical restructuring in the time it takes for a child to grow up, a recent WBEZ report says, disrupting the education of an entire generation of Chicago students. More than 70,000 Chicago school kids — 61,240 of them Black students — have seen either a school closure or all school’s staff fired.
The closings have been traumatic for students and families to live through, WBEZ notes. There’s been a negative academic impact on the kids who’ve switched schools, and the closures have created the sense that schools aren’t community institutions. There’s a sign things are changing — CPS announced last week that they’d dropped plans to convert a largely Black elementary school into a high school after community protests, a huge win for families that have been organizing around this issue for years.
But in the time that Chicago closed 203 schools, it opened 190 new ones. And more than half of those are charter schools. Their rapid expansion has been promoted by Rahm Emanuel at the behest of the wealthy interests pouring money into charter schools. The drastic changes to Chicago’s landscape have placed the city directly at the heart of a national conversation over the corporatization of education.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that the first national charter school strike is taking place in Chicago, where the debate over their existence is very much alive. Chicago Public Schools just decided to recommend the school board deny all new charter applications for the next year. Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker advocated a moratorium on charter schools during his campaign. And the issue is likely to be at the forefront of February’s mayoral race.
The tides may be turning against charter schools, but there’s still already more than 100 such institutions across the city and their educators and students both deserve better. While the circumstances this month in Chicago might be different than the teacher strikes and protests that made waves across the country all year, they stem from the same place — a desire for more justice and equity in the classroom.
Negin Owliaei is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-edits Inequality.org.