Rauner, Emanuel getting more than they bargained for with charters

Photo courtesy of Chris Geovanis/ChiACTS

Educators at the four-school Aspira Charter network have set a strike date of March 17, citing a standstill over “lack of transparency and accountability in finances” and instability at the network’s senior leadership levels.

Governor Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are now trading insults over their inability to adequately fund schools.  It’s not like the old days, when they were shoulder-to-shoulder against the Chicago Teachers Union, with charter school expansion as their prime weapon.

While Rauner can’t pass a budget and Emanuel presides over wave after wave of fiscal crises at Chicago Public Schools, charter teachers are organizing.  With a quarter of its charter school teachers represented by the Chicago Association of Charter Teachers and Staff – Local 4343 of the American Federation of Teachers, known as ChiACTS – Chicago is now the most heavily unionized charter school system in the nation.

And for the second time in a year, Chicago faces the prospect of being the first city in the nation whose charter teachers go on strike. (UPDATE: On March 9, Aspira Charter teachers reached a tentative agreement with the charter’s management, averting a strike. Following an afternoon rally where Aspira teachers protested management’s failure to provide financial information as a possible unfair labor practice, the charter school’s management offered a contract proposal that accepted union demands on wages and work schedule adjustments.)

That’s certainly not the direction Rauner and Emanuel thought they were headed a few years ago.

The recent news that teachers at the Noble Network of Charter Schools are launching an organizing drive must have rankled for both of them.

Noble is the charter chain that Emanuel cited a few years ago, when he was pushing his “school choice” agenda, claiming (in a video produced by an associate of Andrew Breitbart) that they “have the secret sauce.” He may have been referring to its punitive disciplinary system that at one point collected tens of thousands in fees for often-minimal discipline infractions from its mostly lower-income, African American student body.

For his part, Rauner gave Noble a million dollars and has one of its charter campuses named for him.

The Noble Network has 17 schools, almost all named for rich people. If ACTS succeeds in organizing them, it would be the largest charter school bargaining unit in the nation.

Noble teachers may have announced their organizing drive early in order to encourage management to avoid labor law violations, like the firings that Urban Prep was forced to rescind last year. ChiACTS has lined up support for its organizing drive from political and community leaders, including Cook County Board member Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and City Treasurer Kurt Summers. That kind of backing, along with support from parents at charter schools, has been crucial in a series of organizing victories.

Meanwhile, last month, 92 out of 102 teachers at the four-school Aspira Charter network voted to strike.  On Tuesday, in an event scheduled days earlier, they announced a strike date: March 17.

They’re now evaluating a contract proposal from management they received hours before Tuesday’s announcement. Details weren’t immediately available, though last week, before the latest offer, ChiACTS said the two parties were not far apart on economic issues.

Negotiations have been going on for nearly a year, but according to a union statement, stalled over “lack of transparency and accountability in finances” and instability at the network’s senior leadership levels.  For one thing, Aspira’s overhead, including non-academic administration spending, is significantly higher than the citywide average for charter schools, according to the union. Meanwhile school positions go unfilled, and routine maintenance isn’t done.

The union says management has failed to provide financial information that’s been requested; they’re considering filing an unfair labor practice charge on this issue.

Aspira teachers have worked long hours for lower pay because they’re dedicated to the organization’s mission of Latino youth development, said Chris Geovanis of ChiACTS.  But they are frustrated with “management chaos and indifference at the top,” she said.

ChiACTS and the AFT support charter schools that empower teachers, but argue that “responsible charter management must be both transparent and accountable.”  Given the scandals the have engulfed some of Chicago’s most politically connected charters – including contracting fraud at UNO and disciplinary abuse at Noble – teacher protections and input through collective bargaining can serve as a valuable counterweight.

Local organizing efforts also show that while our political establishment has few solutions to offer for our most basic problems, progress is still possible from people taking initiative at the grassroots.

  • Brian Harris

    Before anyone jumps in with some nonsense about how unionizing will hurt students at charter schools, there have been unionized charters in Chicago for 8 years. Certainly, any union-caused ruination should have happened by now. If you have any evidence it did, go ahead and post it, but you’re not going to be able to find any.