charter union

Chicago charter strike extends a third day, with teachers holding out for raises for support staff

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat Chicago
Striking Acero teachers walked a picket line in front of a Chicago Board of Education meeting on Wednesday.

As a strike that has left 7,500 students out of school headed into its third day, union teachers reported small gains — but stuck adamantly by demands for smaller class sizes and for increased pay, including for paraprofessionals.

Likewise, the Acero charter network reported productive movement late Wednesday — even on the contentious issue of the pay scale for support staff. But shortly after midnight, union officials said the strike would extend a third day with plans to double shifts on picket lines. 

Read more: Five Acero teachers on why they decided to strike

“The network seems to be offering more to teachers and less to paraprofessionals, and our bargaining unit does not accept that,” said Martha Baumgarten, a fifth-grade teacher at Acero’s Carlos Fuentes Elementary and a member of the bargaining team.

An Acero spokesperson told Chalkbeat its proposal included a 6 percent increase, on average, for teachers in each year of a proposed 4-year contract. It also reported conceptual agreement on a “step schedule” for support staff. That could create a matrix, similar to what most public school teachers have, for raises based on longevity and advanced education.

Union negotiators said that pay for support staff such as special education aides and office coordinators is a key part of their demands.

But Daniria Dukes, a member of the union’s bargaining team, said that the union also had not seen enough progress on core demands such as class size and compensation.

About 500 union members have been on strike at 15 schools run by Acero, Chicago’s second-largest charter network, since Tuesday. Community organizations such as the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and the city’s park system have stepped up with day programs for children displaced by the walkouts. 

Paraprofessionals want a pay scale similar to teachers’, rather than a percentage raise with each contract. They also want to lift the pay cap on teacher aides, who they said earn 50 percent what teachers earn.

The aides also want the charter network to create a clear path to become classroom teachers.

Acero picketers repeatedly mentioned the role of paraprofessionals as reasons behind their strike. Special education teacher Kristin Maher, walking in front of Veterans Memorial Campus on Tuesday, said she wanted to make 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 [for teachers] is an issue, I am much more concerned about the funding they give special education,” she said.

She’s also concerned about paraprofessional wages.

She noted that whereas teachers have won raises in the past, others have not reaped the same gains. “We need funding for our paraprofessionals,” she said. “They are the first line for all of our students, the office coordinators are the first line who see the parents. They are the face of our school.”

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.