Charter school teachers in Chicago are on strike this week, the first formal strike against a charter-school operator, after the Acero Schools charter network failed to re-negotiate their contract with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) on December 4th. Teachers are fighting against low wages, overcrowded classrooms, short lunch and recess breaks, insufficient resources and support for special education and bilingual students, and Acero’s unwillingness to formalize sanctuary-school policies in their predominantly Latinx charter school system.
Acero is one of Chicago’s largest charter school networks, serving over 7,000 students in 15 different schools. Negotiations between Acero and the Chicago Teachers Union began six months ago but failed to re-negotiate a contract last week leading to the teachers’ strike.
A recent audit revealed that Acero is paying 1 million dollars less in salary in 2018 than 2017 but has $24 million in unrestricted cash access. Acero teachers, in general, earn on average $13,000 less than their public school peers, but work 20% more hours, according to the union. Acero claims money for salaries was decreased because at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, the Chicago Public Schools released a budget cutting charter school funds. However, the finalized budget actually increased funding for charter schools yet Acero still rejected negotiations for increased wages and school resources. Paraprofessionals within the charter system start with a base salary of $32,100, but excluding pensions, the base salary is actually less than $30,000. The low pay for paraprofessionals is the main point for contention in the negotiations. “$30,000 is not a livable wage in the city of Chicago,” stated Andy Crooks, the president of United Educators for Justice that represents Acero teachers in the CTU.
An important issue being discussed is the need for a formal commitment to and inclusion of sanctuary-school policies in the negotiations and final contract. These are policies that would not allow ICE or other immigration agents to enter the school property or access student information without warrants. Acero argues that it already has these policies and does not see a need to formalize the policies into a labor contract. Crooks believes that the union should demand for the formalization of these policies because Acero’s “policies, they can change on a whim for any reason or no reason whatsoever. What we’re seeking to do is enshrine that policy because it’s important to our members and it’s important to our families. And if it’s important, then we want it in our contract so that they can’t just change their mind. The administration turns over so frequently that who knows who’s coming in next and who knows that their views are going to be.”
The average class size at an Acero school is 32 students, while the Chicago public school limit is 28 students per classroom. Acero schools also have a longer academic year and a longer day than public schools in Chicago. Emma Tarkowski, a kindergarten teacher at an Acero school, said that “the lunches are shorter at our school, the recesses are shorter at our school, and the teacher prep time is shorter at our school. So we are working more and we’re not given as much time as CPS teachers.” Tarkowski further explained that, “the students start arriving at 7:30 if they want school breakfast. Then they’re in my classroom at 7:45. And that is such an early start for 4 and 5 year olds. They come in and they’re tired. It takes a very long time to wake up. Then we go all the way until 3:30 pm. They get a 15-minute recess and a 25-minute lunch and they don’t have any other opportunities to play. It’s not really developmentally appropriate for 5 year olds to work as hard as they’re working all day long without enough breaks.”
Derick Loafmann, a seventh grade teacher, argued that Acero can “afford what we’re seeking. They can afford more special education and more bilingual teachers. They can afford to bring back programs they cut in the past. They can afford reduced class-sizes (they’re already under-enrolled). They can afford to increase compensation to keep educators in the schools.”
The teacher strikes in Chicago follow a recent increase in teachers striking for higher wages and better conditions. Public educators have led walkouts and strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona earlier this year.
Media Resources: Intelligencer 12/6/18; Feminist Newswire 5/4/18, 4/2/18, 2/26/18