By going on strike, the teachers of Chicago’s 15-school Acero network took a step once limited to traditional public schools and began a new era for the nation’s growing charter school sector. When, after a week of walking the picket lines, they settled with the network’s management on very favorable terms, their union may have neatly helped to eradicate one of the arguments for charters in the first place—that is, the ability to work outside the strong influence of the greatly maligned teachers’ unions.
Charter schools today are a key component of education in the US, having operated in some cities for more than two decades. Reformers have encouraged the growth of charters as part of a strategy that believes the power of an open educational marketplace will drive educational improvement. In 44 states, charters receive public funding and are free from the rules and obligations traditional public schools must fill. They are operated by independent, quasi-public organizations, many of which are nonprofit.
Many advocates for expanding charter schools and reducing the reach of traditional public schools have viewed teachers and their unions as a major barrier to educational progress. So, in the charter community, teachers and support staff have traditionally been non-unionized, salaries are significantly lower than those in the adjacent public schools, and the voice of teachers when designing the educational experience has been diminished. With the conclusion of the Acero strike, these differences may begin to crumble.
Chris Baehrend, a former charter school English teacher who now chairs the Chicago Teacher’s Union’s charter division, which supported the Acero teachers’ strike, described to TruthOut the union’s perspective on the challenge they were facing:
Charter operators are creating a second tier in the teaching profession. Your job at a charter school, your pay, benefits, your rights, your ability to speak up for students, all these things are way below [public school district] standards…I would say this strike is the opening salvo, the beginning of a wave of militant unionism in defense of our students in the charter sector, where for a long time the assumption was, “Well, you work for a charter school, your interests must be the same as the charter operators’ interest.” That is in fact not the case. Our interests are students’ interests and charter operators’ interests are business interests, and that contradiction is coming to a crisis point and becoming very clear in these negotiations.
If you reject the demonization of public school teachers, then the agreement that ended the strike was a major step forward. By early Sunday morning, the situation of Acero personnel had moved much closer to that of the staff of the Chicago Public School system. Working conditions had been improved, and the teachers’ vision of quality education had been advanced. According to New York Magazine, “Acero has agreed to align ‘pay for educators and paraprofessionals with pay scales in CPS schools over the course of the agreement, reduce class size and include language in the contract that sets terms for sanctuary schools for students and families.’”
Brad Staples, who teaches at an Acero school, told the Chicago Tribune that the new contract would be a benefit to the schools’ students. “It’s going to keep good teachers in our network and attract good teachers to our network. All in all, it’s a huge win. I’m very happy with it.” Joanna Wax Trost, a seventh-grade English-language teacher at Acero’s Marquez Elementary School, described the larger context of the strike: “What we are fighting for is bigger than the short term. We could potentially let the people who want to privatize and the charter proponents know that there is a potent force to stand against you and protect the kids.”
For charter school advocates, anything that strengthens the role of unions in their sector poses a big threat. A statement from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools saw the strike as an effort “to stifle charter growth and limit innovation and flexibility in the classroom…to enable students to succeed in the classroom and in life.”
The road ahead for teachers and their unions, even after winning this strike, is challenging. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools says “just 11 percent of charter school teachers are unionized. Across the country, 781 of the roughly 6,900 charter schools (11 percent) had collective bargaining agreements with teachers’ unions.” The agreement reached with Acero is a strong first step to strengthen the voice of professional educators as advocates for the children and communities they serve. Will it be just a Chicago event, possible in a city that has a long history of organized labor strength, or will it be the beginning of a larger national movement to align charter school personnel more closely with their colleagues working in traditional public schools? Time will tell.—Martin Levine