charter activism

Why teachers say Noble CEO’s downfall could bolster unionization efforts

The sudden resignation of its CEO and founder Michael Milkie may have caused some turmoil at the Noble Network of schools, but it also has provided fodder for teachers who have been struggling to unionize Chicago’s biggest charter network.

Teachers at Noble say Milkie’s resignation only strengthens their case for why the network needs a union.

“The person who created Noble is leaving because of his own actions that have compromised the integrity of what we do at Noble,” Cara Ladd, a 10th grade teacher at DRW College Prep, a Noble school, told Chalkbeat. “We need a union more than ever before.”

Noble teachers are seeking better conditions, changes to strict rules governing student conduct and a more transparent pay scale.

Milkie, who founded the network in 1999, announced on Nov. 6 that he would be leaving the network at the end of the calendar year. Nearly a week later, Noble President Constance Jones sent a letter to teachers and staff saying that Milkie was asked to resign following revelations about a pattern of “inappropriate behavior with alumni,” which included hand-holding and “an instance of slow-dancing.”

For educators at Noble who want to unionize, reports of Milkie’s misconduct with alumni — and suspicions that leaders delayed responding — bolster their argument that teachers should be more involved in decision-making at the network.

Parents and students have criticized Noble’s practice of charging students money for discipline infractions as well as limiting bathroom breaks, even for menstruating students.

“We’ve always been asked to trust the judgment of Milkie and Noble’s administration,” said Shaun Bruce, a history teacher and learning specialist at Pritzker College Prep, a Noble school. “This shows we can’t really trust their judgment.”

Jones said in a statement that Noble respects the right of teachers to join the Chicago Teachers Union but is concerned about the union’s stance against new charter schools.

“I am deeply concerned about the impact that CTU would have on Noble, since they have opposed the opening of several Noble campuses and fair funding for our students,” the statement read.

Teachers first announced their intention to try to form a union in March 2017, and presented the network’s leadership with more than 100 signatures asking for a “neutrality agreement,” which would allow teachers to campaign for a union without losing their jobs.

But management refused, and in April 2017 educators filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board arguing the network was illegally interfering with their unionization efforts. The agency found merit in the teachers’ claims, and Noble settled before a hearing. If the entire network unionized, Noble would become the largest unionized charter in the country, with more than 800 teachers.

Union advocates hope that the example of another charter network, Acero, might serve as a precedent. Two years ago, the influential leader of the group that ran UNO schools, the previous name for Acero, stepped down amidst a scandal. His ouster helped open the doors for a successful union push. Teachers now are threatening a strike against Acero.

Juan Rangel, chief executive of the United Neighborhood Organization, was accused of financial mismanagement. An expose in the Chicago Sun-Times led to investigations by state officials and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Organizers say Rangel’s resignation undoubtedly helped push school management to negotiate a union agreement they may otherwise not have.

“The situations are comparable,” said Chris Baehrend, who head the charter section of the Chicago Teachers Union. “We saw a whole string of scandals that caused the employer to be open to other neutrality agreements.”

Exploiting vulnerability in leadership is a key part of union strategy, particularly when negative media attention focuses on an institution, labor experts said.

“Fighting with teachers makes you more vulnerable, and in that environment, it can be good to make a deal,” said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But, he noted, leadership may also be reluctant to make any changes or agreements at a time of transition.

Educators at Noble say they are continuing to build support for a union across campuses. One of the challenges, along with the threat of losing their jobs, is high turnover among teaching staff, one of the issues they hope a strong union contract will address.

“If educators weren’t empowered to have a stronger voice within our schools, there was no way we would be able to achieve all of the goals we have for our kids and students,” Ladd said. “As of right now, we are still building support.”

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.


Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools. The school has 444 students in grades K through 4, and plans to grow year by year to eighth grade.

Rogers said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”