Making history

With no deal reached at bargaining table, Acero teachers begin nation’s first charter union strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Teachers protest Acero Schools Veterans Memorial School Campus on Dec. 4, 2018.

Fifteen Chicago charter schools are closed Tuesday after their teachers called a strike — making history with the nation’s first-ever strike of a charter operator.

After bargaining late into the night, teachers at schools in the Acero network decided early Tuesday morning to strike. They had authorized the strike in October over issues that include pay, teacher diversity, and class size.

The strike affects more than 7,000 children, whose parents were advised to keep their children home or find child care. The schools are also using non-union staff to watch children, network officials said.

Outside one of the glass-walled schools that is a crown jewel in the Acero architectural portfolio, dozens of teachers carried picket signs and participated in a robust call-and-response early Tuesday morning.

“They say cut back, we say fight back,” they chanted against the backdrop of a chilly grey morning. “Chicago is a union town.”

The strike represents the first major labor action by charter school educators unionized under the Chicago Teachers Union, which until recently represented only teachers in the city-run school district. Acero’s own teachers union merged with CTU, which represents Chicago public school teachers, last year amid a broad push by CTU to organize educators at publicly funded, privately run charter schools.

Since then, the union has been negotiating a contract for Acero educators and had set Monday night as a deadline to reach an agreement.

Read more: Why Chicago charter educators say now is moment for historic strike

Richard Rodriguez, Acero’s CEO, said in a statement posted on YouTube that network leaders were “disappointed” that the union “walked away from the bargaining table.”

“There is absolutely no good reason to put students and parents through the upheaval of a strike,” Rodriguez said. “Interests from outside our community are using our students and our schools as a means to advance their national anti-charter school platform.”

CTU’s charter unionization push is being closely watched by many in the education world. But Acero teachers said they were concerned first about their own students and schools.

Among teachers’ demands: higher pay, increased teacher diversity, smaller class sizes, and a shorter school year. Teachers said they hoped the changes would curb the network’s chronic staff turnover.

They are also asking for a clear policy that would prohibit immigration authorities from enforcing immigration law inside the schools, to protect their heavily Latino student population, say union officials.

Standing outside the network’s Veterans Memorial Campus Tuesday, special education teacher Kristin Maher said she was concerned about making sure that students with special needs get adequate support. At her school, Acero-Major Hector P. Garcia M.D. High School, she said, turnover is high among paraprofessionals who help students with disabilities.

“Although compensation is an issue, I am much more concerned about the funding they give special education,” said Maher, a special education teacher.

Maher’s colleague, Susana Urquiza, said she, too, was unable to meet her students’ needs. “I am the bilingual education teacher in a school of 175 students who are considered English learners and I am the only teacher in charge of the program,” Urquiza said. “Another teacher to help me with the program would be helpful. I’ve had to get subs for my classroom, so I don’t feel like I am really helping my students.”

Charter school teachers who walk out face steep stakes. Because they have private employers, any labor action they take is governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act. That means they can be fired for taking collective action, while teachers employed by the school district can strike without risking losing their jobs.

Read more: 5 reasons to watch Chicago’s historic charter contract negotiations

Acero Schools, the charter operator formerly known as UNO, told Chalkbeat in November that it was committed to seeing negotiations through. “Based on statements CTU has made, there is a real focus on making an example out of charter schools,” the network said in a statement.

This is the second strike in the past decade overseen by the Chicago Teachers Union, which includes the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. The CTU’s most recent strike, in 2012, targeted the entire Chicago Public Schools district and was largely seen as pushing through contract reforms that benefited teachers.

What happens during Acero’s strike could have implications beyond the network. The charter school bargaining unit is negotiating contracts with 11 operators this fall. Among them, teachers at Chicago International Charter Schools are negotiating contracts with two of the network’s management companies, and took a strike vote this fall. And the recent resignation of the founder of Noble, Chicago’s largest charter network, could open the door for its teachers to form the biggest charter union yet.

Acero and its teachers are returning to the table at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

appeals

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.”

rules and regulations

Indiana education officials call for a crackdown on ‘too big to fail’ virtual schools

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Nearly 10 years after virtual charter schools launched in Indiana, the fast-growing sector could face its first set of meaningful regulations aimed at cracking down on some of the state’s most problematic online schools.

In a 7-1 vote Wednesday, the Indiana State Board of Education recommended that state lawmakers impose stricter rules on virtual charter school and the agencies that oversee them. The proposed rules would stop school districts from overseeing virtual schools, eliminate a fee structure that officials say disincentivizes oversight agencies from intervening in struggling schools, and limit the growth of new and chronically underperforming virtual schools.

The recommendations would most affect two virtual charter schools that have been among Indiana’s largest and lowest-performing online schools: Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which are overseen by the small Daleville school district.

The state board also suggests new requirements to improve student engagement — an issue for the schools since students work remotely — including setting minimum student-to-teacher ratios and making an orientation mandatory before students are allowed to enroll in virtual schools. And the board calls for virtual education programs in traditional public school districts to follow similar rules as virtual charter schools.

“We’ve seen a very poor return on investment of taxpayer money for virtual education,” said board member Gordon Hendry, who led the examination of virtual charter schools. “There’s little regard for student outcomes, and virtual charters perform worse than the worst of brick-and-mortar schools.”

It remains to be seen how lawmakers might act on the recommendations in the legislative session that starts in January. Even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for action on Indiana’s failing virtual charter schools following a Chalkbeat investigation, lawmakers declined to act last year on bills aimed at improving them.

But, since then, Indiana’s virtual charter schools have attracted more attention, with their poor performance falling under the spotlight in a Congressional committee and a new virtual school making last-minute changes to its model after another Chalkbeat investigation into its oversight.

The leader of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, Percy Clark, criticized the state board’s recommendations as being contradictory. He said that because the state funds virtual charter schools at lower levels than brick-and-mortar schools, capping enrollment would prevent schools from being able to afford prescribed teacher-student ratios.

Clark also raised concerns that more rules would interfere with virtual charter schools’ ability to innovate by “forcing virtual schools to comply with traditional standards.”

Still, Hendry touted the recommendations as a critical step to setting “guardrails” for Indiana’s troubled virtual charter schools, which serve about 13,000 students and have consistently posted dismally low test scores and graduation rates.

He came down particularly hard on authorizers, the oversight agencies tasked with monitoring virtual charter schools and stepping in when schools struggle.

“I think there should be a vote of ‘no confidence,’” Hendry said, blaming authorizers for not holding virtual charter schools accountable. He said the money flowing to authorizers of virtual schools causes “a significant conflict of interest” since it’s not in the authorizers’ financial interest to close or limit the growth of schools, making them essentially “too big to fail.”

But the board balked at suggesting that a single authorizer oversee all virtual charter schools — a proposal that Hendry said came out of looking at laws in Colorado, Maine, and Oklahoma, and recommendations from national organizations such as the National Association for Charter School Authorizers and the conservative Fordham Institute.

Board member Katie Mote said that would “push too far,” raising concerns about limiting Indiana’s school choice environment.

Among the board members supporting the proposed regulations was Byron Ernest, the former head of three online schools under the Hoosier Academies network. That included Hoosier Academy Virtual School, Indiana’s first virtual charter school, which closed this year after years of failing grades.