Chicago could see its third teachers strike this school year

Another teachers strike could be brewing in Chicago, this time at a contract arts school on the city’s West Side.

Joined by more than 100 cheering and laughing high school students, educators at the Chicago High School for the Arts rallied after school Monday to call for higher wages, more money for classroom supplies and pension contributions.

“We need truly adequately resourced classrooms,” said English teacher Andrew Van Herik. “ChiArts could be a sustainable and great school for all, but management has to choose student learning over money.”

If the 42 unionized ChiArts teachers walk out, it would be Chicago’s third teachers strike in four months. Although ChiArts is under the umbrella of Chicago Public Schools, it operates privately on a contract with the district. Unlike Acero and Chicago International charter schools, where teachers went on strike in recent months, ChiArts is not a charter school.

Instead, the school was created by a group of arts organizations convened by the Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, a Chicago-based arts foundation, to consider gaps in arts education. Individuals from the arts organizations eventually became the founding board members of ChiArts. 

Jose Ochoa, executive director of ChiArts, said in a statement that he greatly valued teachers and their work for students. But, he noted, “we believe the bargaining table is the appropriate place for negotiation and compromise – not the media or the public.”

The Chicago Teachers Union’s charter division, which represents ChiArts teachers, says the school is in a legal gray area, where rules written for district schools and charter schools don’t apply. For example, teachers say the state school code requires charter schools to give public access to board meetings, but doesn’t require the same of contract schools.

Teachers say that students’ academic education is suffering because low pay and high staff turnover have left the school unable to hire a credentialed science teacher for freshman biology for months. Instead, students are learning biology from a computer program.

“They didn’t sign up for that,” Van Herik said.

Teachers also want to raise their salaries closer to the district’s salary schedule, and for management to pay into the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund for their pensions, rather than having teachers to pay into Social Security.

“At ChiArts, our turnover rate is 20 percent every year,” Van Herik, who teaches English, said. “Low salaries means that finding teachers is very difficult.”

The union also is demanding that the school pay art teachers more. Right now, Van Herik said, the part-time art teachers who staff the school make $16 an hour for some duties and have no union protections or other benefits.

The demand echoes a dynamic seen in other charter teachers strikes where teachers also asked for improved conditions for employees in more precarious positions, such as support staff at Acero.