The nation’s first-ever strike by unionized charter school teachers occurred in Chicago in December and has set a precedent for other charter schools in the Windy City that are struggling with low teacher pay, crowded classrooms and poor funding.
But underlying their demands is a larger problem, said Chris Baehrend, the chair of the charter division of the Chicago Teachers Union.
“These are private companies running schools — they have a bottom line,” Baehrend said. “We have student interests.”
Of Chicago’s 121 charter schools, 34 are unionized and, like charters around the country, they all receive public funds.
In fact, Chicago’s charter schools get 8 percent more public funding than public schools, Baehrend said, and most of their funding goes to the private operators of the for-profit charters. Teachers earn an average salary of $65,000, about 30 percent less than public school teachers in Chicago, Baehrend said. But charter school executives who oversee a handful of schools earn six-figure salaries, in the same league as the Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer, who oversees 600 schools.
Teachers and union leaders say charter operators are sitting on millions of dollars that should be spent on hiring teachers, delivering special education services and providing counselors.
“We need to move resources out of the hand of businesses and into the classrooms,” Baehrend said.
Teachers are hopeful change is afoot.
A four-day strike in December by Acero Charter Schools affected 500 teachers and paraprofessionals in 15 schools. Teachers won raises, a shorter school day and a sanctuary schools designation, an important victory in a city with many undocumented students.
In February, nearly 200 educators in the Chicago International Charter School network walked out for nine days. They won raises, smaller class sizes and a sanctuary designation.
Now, teachers at five smaller charter school networks, whose contracts expire at the same time this summer, have coordinated bargaining. In April, 94 percent of the teachers voted to strike if necessary. No date has been set.
Mihir Garud, a teacher and chapter leader at the Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy, one of the schools involved, says his school has had a 40 percent teacher turnover in two years. Substitutes are used instead of permanent replacements, he said.
“The understaffing hurts kids,” Garud said. “Special education services are denied because they can’t meet the IEP requirements. There’s not enough room for pull-out classes.”
In addition, some juniors and seniors are forced to transfer because the school hasn’t staffed a class they need to graduate, such as biology, he said.
The need for wraparound services is also high.
Linda Zaia can attest to that. She teaches in the Youth Connection Charter Schools network, at an alternative high school in a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Recently, two of her students were killed outside the school, but there is no full-time counselor on staff, she said. “We have to wait 30-40 minutes for the network to send someone over,” she said.
When a student left a suicide note on her desk, Zaia was told to deal with it; a substitute was sent to her class.
In her charter school network, Zaia said, special education teachers are moved around on more than 20 campuses, depending on need. “Students are not getting the services required by their IEPs,” she said.
Because the alternative high schools are a last chance for many, the lack of resources at her school is especially cruel, Zaia said. “We sent a student home who was acting out,” she said. “He clearly had mental health issues, but we had no one to identify the problem.”
The teachers would like to avoid a strike, Zaia said, “but management has made little progress toward doing the right thing.”
“People have misconceptions about charter schools,” she said. “It’s not a better option because there’s no accountability for the operators. There is so much inconsistency that affects children’s lives. But the more people are aware of it, the faster change will occur.”