Counternarrative

Parents line up to push back against Chicago’s cold shoulder to charters

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
The word 'strike' is taped across a coat as educators from the Acero charter school network strike outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters on December 5, 2018

Already a tough week for charters in Chicago, the city’s school board unanimously voted on Wednesday to deny all new charter proposals for the 2019-20 school year. It also voted to close two underperforming campuses, Kwame Nkrumah Charter School in West Roseland and Urban Prep West in University Village, with one abstention from Vice President Jaime Guzman.

Poor academic performance and shaky finances were among the reasons CEO Janice Jackson gave in recommendations made public earlier this week to close the schools.

Meanwhile, outside the board meeting, teachers from the nation’s first charter strike formed a noisy picket line that visitors had to cross to access district headquarters. Now in its second day, the strike against one of the city’s most entrenched charter networks, Acero Schools, has uprooted 7,500 children who attend 15 schools.

Propelled by their fear that the city is increasingly turning a cold shoulder to the privately run, publicly funded schools, a parade of charter parents from networks across the city weaved through sign-toting Acero teachers to speak to the school board Wednesday.

The parents voiced support for their individual networks’ charter renewals and, more broadly, countered the week’s prevailing anti-charter narrative with personal stories of college perseverance, tailor-fit solutions to chronic problems, and warm “open door” policies to families.

Speakers represented several charter schools and networks, from the 18-campus Noble Network to Intrinsic, which manages a 1,000-student combined middle and high school in Irving Park. An Intrinsic proposal for a citywide high school located near the Loop was among the three that the board denied.

“Let’s support any school that’s doing well, and let’s support those that aren’t doing well,” said parent Michael Nash, whose children attend CICS Avalon, a Level 1-rated, mostly black school in a Far South Side neighborhood where parents often lament the lack of quality options. “A great school attracts great residents to any neighborhood.”

“What’s the essence of your message?” board President Frank Clark asked Nash, one of the morning’s first public commenters.

“The essence of my message is that these schools are lacking support across the board,” Nash replied.

Ebony Williams, the parent of three children at Noble Network’s Johnson College Prep, gave one of the day’s most heartfelt pleas, describing how a village of educators and counselors at the Englewood campus rallied around her daughter after Williams’ husband was killed.

“My daughter was drowning, and I didn’t know how to get her a lifejacket,” said Williams, describing how one-on-one counseling and attention for her daughter’s depression “exceeded her expectations.”

This school year, the Chicago district oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools. That comes out to slightly more than 20 percent of all public schools.

Acero is the district’s second largest charter operator. The largest charter network, Noble, is still reeling from its own shakeup: the sudden departure of its co-founder, Michael Milkie, after complaints surfaced that he acted inappropriately toward alumni.

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-page report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

While the report lauded states and schools using techniques such as positive behavioral interventions and supports to tackle student misbehavior, the commission stopped short of calling for more federal funding for such initiatives.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is a particularly notable move. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unchecked, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says. It cites a survey from the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, with comments like, “There is a feeling that by keeping some students in school, we are risking the safety of students.”

(AASA’s advocacy director, who praised some aspects of the report, says those comments represented a minority view.)

There’s limited research evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe, though teachers in multiple districts have reported that they have been hamstrung by new restrictions. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

The report also argues that guidance rests on shaky legal ground by relying on the concept of “disparate impact” — meaning policies that are neutral on their face but have varying effects on different races can be considered discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the report says, disparities in discipline rates may not have to do with discrimination at all, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

“When there is evidence beyond a mere statistical disparity that educational programs and policies may violate the federal prohibition on racial discrimination, this Administration will act swiftly and decisively to investigate and remedy any discrimination,” it says.

The Obama-era guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require districts to make changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking.

That’s likely to harm students of color and students with disabilities, former Obama education secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a statement.

“Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening,” they said.

Read the entire report here:



Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

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.”