Making history

With no deal reached at bargaining table, Acero teachers begin nation’s first charter union strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Teachers protest Acero Schools Veterans Memorial School Campus on Dec. 4, 2018.

Fifteen Chicago charter schools are closed Tuesday after their teachers called a strike — making history with the nation’s first-ever strike of a charter operator.

After bargaining late into the night, teachers at schools in the Acero network decided early Tuesday morning to strike. They had authorized the strike in October over issues that include pay, teacher diversity, and class size.

The strike affects more than 7,000 children, whose parents were advised to keep their children home or find child care. The schools are also using non-union staff to watch children, network officials said.

Outside one of the glass-walled schools that is a crown jewel in the Acero architectural portfolio, dozens of teachers carried picket signs and participated in a robust call-and-response early Tuesday morning.

“They say cut back, we say fight back,” they chanted against the backdrop of a chilly grey morning. “Chicago is a union town.”

The strike represents the first major labor action by charter school educators unionized under the Chicago Teachers Union, which until recently represented only teachers in the city-run school district. Acero’s own teachers union merged with CTU, which represents Chicago public school teachers, last year amid a broad push by CTU to organize educators at publicly funded, privately run charter schools.

Since then, the union has been negotiating a contract for Acero educators and had set Monday night as a deadline to reach an agreement.

Read more: Why Chicago charter educators say now is moment for historic strike

Richard Rodriguez, Acero’s CEO, said in a statement posted on YouTube that network leaders were “disappointed” that the union “walked away from the bargaining table.”

“There is absolutely no good reason to put students and parents through the upheaval of a strike,” Rodriguez said. “Interests from outside our community are using our students and our schools as a means to advance their national anti-charter school platform.”

CTU’s charter unionization push is being closely watched by many in the education world. But Acero teachers said they were concerned first about their own students and schools.

Among teachers’ demands: higher pay, increased teacher diversity, smaller class sizes, and a shorter school year. Teachers said they hoped the changes would curb the network’s chronic staff turnover.

They are also asking for a clear policy that would prohibit immigration authorities from enforcing immigration law inside the schools, to protect their heavily Latino student population, say union officials.

Standing outside the network’s Veterans Memorial Campus Tuesday, special education teacher Kristin Maher said she was concerned about making sure that students with special needs get adequate support. At her school, Acero-Major Hector P. Garcia M.D. High School, she said, turnover is high among paraprofessionals who help students with disabilities.

“Although compensation is an issue, I am much more concerned about the funding they give special education,” said Maher, a special education teacher.

Maher’s colleague, Susana Urquiza, said she, too, was unable to meet her students’ needs. “I am the bilingual education teacher in a school of 175 students who are considered English learners and I am the only teacher in charge of the program,” Urquiza said. “Another teacher to help me with the program would be helpful. I’ve had to get subs for my classroom, so I don’t feel like I am really helping my students.”

Charter school teachers who walk out face steep stakes. Because they have private employers, any labor action they take is governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act. That means they can be fired for taking collective action, while teachers employed by the school district can strike without risking losing their jobs.

Read more: 5 reasons to watch Chicago’s historic charter contract negotiations

Acero Schools, the charter operator formerly known as UNO, told Chalkbeat in November that it was committed to seeing negotiations through. “Based on statements CTU has made, there is a real focus on making an example out of charter schools,” the network said in a statement.

This is the second strike in the past decade overseen by the Chicago Teachers Union, which includes the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. The CTU’s most recent strike, in 2012, targeted the entire Chicago Public Schools district and was largely seen as pushing through contract reforms that benefited teachers.

What happens during Acero’s strike could have implications beyond the network. The charter school bargaining unit is negotiating contracts with 11 operators this fall. Among them, teachers at Chicago International Charter Schools are negotiating contracts with two of the network’s management companies, and took a strike vote this fall. And the recent resignation of the founder of Noble, Chicago’s largest charter network, could open the door for its teachers to form the biggest charter union yet.

Acero and its teachers are returning to the table at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

charter activism

Acero strike pushes charters to the front of the education labor movement

Teachers protest Acero Schools Veterans Memorial School Campus on Dec. 4, 2018.

When Christian Herr saw in a news alert earlier this month that Acero charter teachers in Chicago had gone on strike, he felt a mixture of admiration and pride.

“I was just really excited, especially for a lot of the things they were specifically asking for,” Herr said.

Herr is a science teacher at Chavez Prep Middle School, the first charter to unionize, in Washington, D.C. The demands of Acero teachers felt in line with what he hoped his union would bring — protections for undocumented students, a shorter school year, and better pay.

The nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers, when some 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job earlier this month, reverberated across the country. It grabbed the attention of charter teachers like Herr and their employers, as well as of the broader education community that may have regarded charters as on the fringes of their interests — until now.

Herr, whose union like Acero’s is associated with the American Federation of Teachers, said, “I am proud that we are both part of the same national group.”

National labor experts, union officials and charter teachers say the impact of the strike won’t hit the industry immediately — but when it comes, it could be big.

“I think it’s historic,” said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K–12 equity and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank aimed at reducing inequality. “I think this strike could be pivotal in expanding a movement that right now is small but has the potential to grow a great deal.”

The charter strike could link two disparate, and sometimes hostile, groups:  teachers at publicly run schools and those in charter schools. The strike also could portend changes for the charter sector itself and the future of unions more broadly.

Experts estimate that 10 percent of charter schools are unionized. The American Federation of Teachers represents 7,500 charter school employees at 236 schools in 15 states. Chicago has the highest proportion of charters with union contracts, at 25 percent, but Los Angeles has more union teachers at charters.

Acero teachers succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day, in part because as private employees they could legally bargain over more topics.

That win, said Steven Ashby, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, could go a long way to convince other charter teachers that unionizing could help solve problems in their classroom.

“More charter teachers may strongly consider organizing after seeing what a short strike can get them,” Ashby said. “For those that are already unionized, I think they may be less likely to take tiny, incremental change, and instead look at the example of Chicago and say: Look, we can really win.”

Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, agreed.

“It seems like a very good signal for other charter schools that if they were to unionize, they would be able to get the outcomes they want,” Strunk said. “It’s a bellwether moment where this could spawn consecutive striking situations by other unionized charters.”

But efforts to unionize charter teachers still face challenges. In June, the U.S. 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.

Janus dealt a blow to public-sector unions. But unionizing charter school teachers could be a way for unions, like the Chicago Teachers Union, to continue to build a membership base.

Henig says that means they need to continue to attract members who think they have something to win. “A more militant union in some ways may be a more exciting one to attract members,” he said.

But what about the traditional approach of bodies, like the Chicago Teacher Union, as charter skeptics?

Strunk said unions that have been anti-charter would have to walk a fine line to walk when unionizing charter schools.

But, she said, it’s also possible that with more teacher input spelled out in stronger contracts, charter schools may become better for students.

“Unions’ reasoning has been that charters are not good for kids for many reasons,” Strunk said. “If now they can bring charters into the fold and create union contracts that resemble the traditional contracts they’ve negotiated, they might feel differently about the benefits these schools will have for kids.”

The strike also highlighted the similarities in contract demands of charter teachers and educators at district-run schools — about class size, budget cuts and workloads.

“Even though they are operating in two different systems that in some ways have been designed to bang heads with one another, the key issues that teachers face are often pretty similar,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political education at Columbia University.

Kahlenberg sees the precedent-setting strike harkening back to the original ideas around charter schools sketched by Albert Shanker, considered one of the original visionaries of charters, as laboratories where new ideas in education could be tested and teachers would have more input.

“Shanker very much wanted charter schools  to be a place where teachers had a greater voice in how schools are run,” he said. “I think we are coming full circle back to Al Shanker’s vision, in this case through the use of a strike.”

In Chicago, the effects of the strike could be felt sooner rather than later. The Chicago Teachers Union is actively negotiating 10 contracts at charter networks, two for the first time.

And teachers at the Noble Network who unsuccessfully have tried to unionize for several years and whose founder recently resigned after allegations of improper conduct with alumni, watched the Acero strike closely.

“Educators at Noble have been talking about it with their colleagues,” said Casey Sweeney, lead organizer with Chicago ACTS, which has unionized charter schools and is under the umbrella of the Chicago and the state- and national-level teachers unions.

“It would have been hard to imagine a charter strike when the Acero union was first certified” about five years ago, Sweeney said. “But it has made me incredibly hopeful for what is possible, for educators at Noble, to win.”

money matters

To help them across the college finish line, alums of KIPP charters in four new cities will be eligible for emergency cash

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As Aaron Ford reviewed his financial aid package in 2015, he knew he was about to come up short.

He was trying to transfer to a four-year college after earning his associate’s degree close to home. But Towson University’s campus was an hour and half from his mother’s in Southeast Washington, D.C., and he didn’t have what he needed to relocate or live there full time, even after taking out loans and working multiple jobs.

“For many of us who come from D.C., the aid just doesn’t go as far because we are considered out-of-state so many places,” said Ford, now 23. It “can be just enough to derail you.”

Ford had been in touch with college counselors at KIPP, the charter network where he attended school from fifth grade until he graduated high school in 2013. Officials there had a solution: $10,423.

That’s how much Ford was allocated over two years through KIPP’s program offering emergency “microgrants” to D.C. alumni at risk of dropping out of college. On Monday, KIPP announced that program was growing to offer help to alumni from its schools in New York City, Memphis, the Bay Area, and Philadelphia — expanding a straightforward strategy to help ensure students from low-income families make it through college.

“We’re aware this isn’t going to close all the gaps, but for many of our students, who already qualify for a lot of financial aid, the actual aid isn’t always there to meet those needs to pay the bills,” said Meghan Behnke, a KIPP DC deputy director.

Some colleges offer completion grants that can help students struggling to graduate, notably Georgia State and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. But most schools offer few avenues for students facing immediate practical challenges that could derail a college career.

“KIPP has been open about the challenges their alumni are having with basic needs insecurity (food and housing challenges) and emergency aid is one of the best known approaches to addressing those issues,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, an expert on college affordability and a Temple University professor, wrote in an email. “It’s about delivering money right when a student needs it, just in time to really help.”

Each of the four KIPP regions will receive $37,000 to $40,000 to start their funds, the network said, thanks to the Ludwig Family Foundation.

The network says the microgrants to alums of its D.C. schools have averaged about $3,200 and have helped about 40 students stay on track since 2014. That includes Ford, who graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and marketing and now works for an insurance company in the D.C. metro area.

“Based on what we’re seeing in D.C., we are eager to see the impact at a larger scale,” KIPP Foundation CEO Richard Barth wrote in a Forbes column Monday.