Analysis

5 reasons to watch Chicago’s historic charter contract negotiations

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

On Tuesday, teachers at the Acero network voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike should contract negotiations stall. Here are five reasons why people in Chicago, and beyond, should pay attention to Chicago’s charter union industry.

It’s about more than just one school.

Acero isn’t the only school in tense negotiations. On Friday, teachers at another charter network, Chicago International Charter School, will take a strike authorization vote. In total, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), which represents charter teachers in Chicago, is negotiating contracts with 11 operators this fall.

If any of these groups of teachers walk out, it will be the first charter strike in American history, according to union officials and labor experts.

Charter unions have private employers.

Unlike teachers employed by a school district, charter teachers have private employers. If teachers strike, they’re governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act. Martin H. Malin, co-director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at Kent Law School, said the economic pressure is much higher for striking charter teachers. “Under the NLRB, the employer may permanently replace the strikers,” he said.

It’s about more than just one industry.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that labor unions could no longer collect fees from employees on whose behalf they negotiate, but who haven’t joined the union as full members. It was a blow to public sector unions, and many are still struggling to understand their future in the wake of the decision.

To Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, strike authorization votes like that taken by teachers at Acero are part of a broader political battle between pro- and anti-union forces. “Being able to marshal the resources to effectively wage and win a strike in the post-Janus era is a real statement to those political forces that believe that Janus would be the death blow to teachers unions,” he said, “particularly for the first time in the charter industry.”

The charter teachers are represented by one of the most militant labor unions in the country.

When ChiACTS voted to join the Chicago Teachers Union, it joined a body that has a history of aggressive bargaining. In 2012, thousands of CTU members went out on a weeklong strike that captured headlines across the country. They also pushed their demands beyond just wages and benefits to broader school-quality factors. This spring, CTU teachers will begin negotiating a new contract again.

Bruno said the charter school unionized employees being affiliated with the CTU means they carry some of the political force of the teachers union. “The probability of a strike is much higher,” he said.

The negotiations are taking place as Chicago gears up for a mayoral election.

Chicago’s school board is appointed by the mayor. That means whoever is elected to replace Rahm Emanuel will appoint the district’s board of education. Traditionally, mayors have worked hard to put their own stamp on the way school districts are run. At the same time, the primary charter PAC in Illinois is gearing up to spend millions on the mayoral and local aldermanic elections. A contested election plus millions of dollars related to education policy pouring into the city raise the stakes of already tense negotiations.

“This is part of a larger, corporate-backed, very conservative network of forces that have invaded the public school system and are trying to privatize it,” Bruno said. “Chicago gets set up as a battlefield for the charter industry.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.