Charter Schools

From missed meetings to children home alone, Chicago families feel the strain of ongoing Acero charter strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff/Chalkbeat
Teachers picket in front of Chicago Public Schools headquarters on the second day of the Acero teachers strike.

It took Alma Adan several weeks to schedule a meeting with school counselors to go over her kindergarten son’s special education needs. But the day of the planned meeting came and went Thursday, and Adan had yet to connect with the counselors at the Acero charter school that her son and two daughters attend.

That’s because the teachers there have been on strike since Tuesday. 

“I’m kind of frustrated today,” said Adan, a stay-at-home mother who lives in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood on the city’s West Side, and whose children attend Acero’s Roberto Clemente School nearby.

Acero is Chicago’s second-largest charter network, and about 500 of its union members are on strike across 15 schools. They are demanding smaller class sizes, more pay for teachers and paraprofessionals, and a “sanctuary school” policy that would protect undocumented students from possible immigration enforcement.

The strike, which continued Friday, has displaced more than 7,000 children whose parents were advised to keep their children home or find child care. Working parents have had to scramble for coverage or leave their children home alone. Parents who don’t work, meanwhile, or who have flexible jobs, have had to contend with bored and confused children.

Around 95 percent of the network’s students are Latino, and almost half are English language learners. Many are low-income.

For Adan, the strike has been a major inconvenience, to be sure. Still, she said she supports the teachers and wants to see their picket-line demands be met.

“We used to have a technology teacher,” Adan said Thursday, speaking to Chalkbeat in the afternoon, after she walked the picket line with her children. “There have been so many changes, like budget cuts, that affected our school. I support the teachers because they are also fighting for our students.”

She’s hardly the only one caught between the desire for changes at Acero schools and the hope that the strike will end sooner rather than later.

Maria Mauricio, a parent with first- and third-graders at Acero’s Veterans Memorial School Campus in Archer Heights, said the strike has been very stressful.

“I hear from a lot of my friends that a lot of people are not sleeping,” she said. “We are anxiously waiting for the calls to say class is back in session.”

As of Thursday evening, teacher representatives who are in the process of bargaining with Acero leaders said the two sides made progress on sanctuary schools, but had made little movement on class size or pay.

With so many kids out of class, public and community organizations such as the Chicago Park District and the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago have stepped in to help the families with free childcare. Still few availed themselves of these offers. The Rauner Family YMCA in Little Village served two students on Tuesday and Wednesday, while the Lakeview location served eight. Four students came to the park district’s centers on Wednesday and seven came on Thursday. Meanwhile, Acero schools kept their doors open, and non-union staff was supervising group activities; between 75 and 100 students showed up.

Mauricio did not take her children to any of the backup childcare locations because she didn’t entirely feel comfortable leaving her children there. Instead she stayed at home with her kids and took them to the picket line Thursday to show support for the striking teachers.

For some families with working parents, the decision to close schools has meant children are alone at home. Most of the schools in the Acero network are K-8, with an exception of one K-12 school and two high schools.

Brian Kharot’s sister goes to one of the high schools, Acero’s Major Hector P. Garcia M.D. High School. Less than a mile from where teachers were walking the picket line Tuesday at Garcia, Kharot was working his shift at a Dunkin’ Donuts. The night before Kharot, a Little Village resident, had been speaking with his mom and sister around the kitchen table about the teacher’s planned walkout.

“My mom was upset,” Kharot said, “because my sister had to stay home from school by herself because my mom works during the day.”


impasse over

With tentative deal struck in Chicago charter school strike, Acero students set to return to class

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Acero charter school teachers protest in front of Chicago Public Schools headquarters during the nation's first charter teacher strike.

Teachers and management of Chicago’s Acero Schools reached a tentative deal Sunday, putting an end to the nation’s first-ever charter school strike.

More than 7,000 students at 15 Acero charter schools are expected to be back in class Monday morning. The historic strike at the city’s second-largest charter network canceled classes for four days, leaving families scrambling and attracting national attention. 

At an event Sunday afternoon at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters, Acero’s teacher and paraprofessional bargaining team spoke in front of a room full of educators and supporters and called the agreement a win.

“Today our students and our families have won,” said Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice — essentially a teacher’s aide — at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school.

This is the first Acero contract negotiated since the charter union joined the Chicago Teachers Union. Among the key agreements is compensation that aligns with pay scales in the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Teachers Union contract, including annual raises over the four-year contract. The contract of teachers at district-run schools will expire in the spring.

In a statement, Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez said the final agreement would incorporate demands from both sides.

“Thanks to hard work and very long hours from both bargaining teams, we were able to reach an agreement that values teachers and staff for the important work they do,” Rodriguez said, “while still maintaining the attributes of our network that help produce strong educational outcomes for our students.”

While neither side offered concrete contract details, the broad parameters of the agreement include:

  • Wage increases for paraprofessionals based on seniority and education level. Previously, wages for paraprofessionals did not have mandated increases beyond annual raises negotiated in the last contract.
  • Caps on class size at 30 students. 
  • A shorter school year that is closer to the length of CPS’s year. The Acero school year began on Aug. 13, earlier than the post-Labor Day start at Chicago Public Schools. Charter schools typically have longer school days and calendars than district-run schools.
  • Shorter teacher work days that reduce additional duties but don’t cut into instructional time. The current instruction day is 7-1/2 hours, but teachers say they currently work more than eight hours a day.
  • Enshrining language that promises so-called sanctuary school status for immigrant students and families into the union contract. The network’s agreement with teachers will include  limits on sharing information about students with immigration authorities, as well as a requirement for a warrant or other legal standard before authorities enter schools. 
  • Carve-outs during the school day for special education case managers and a class size cap for special education teachers.

More than 500 teachers were on strike for four days, freezing instruction for Acero students and forcing parents to scramble to find child care. During the strike, union officials targeted political allies of Acero’s former parent company as the network filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in an effort to force teachers back into the classroom.

Charter strike

Chicago charter files federal labor complaint against union over strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, left, met Dec. 7, 2018, with striking Acero teachers and their supporters, who were protesting at his office.

As the acrimonious teacher strike against Acero charter schools wound down its fourth day, both sides ratcheted up pressure, neither giving any indication of backing down.

The charter network sought a court order to halt the strike, and filed a federal complaint claiming that the strike was illegal.

Meanwhile, powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas heavy with Acero schools, addressed strikers who had marched into his office Friday.

“My heart is with you,” Burke told them. He promised to speak with Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez in an effort to end the strike before Monday, according to both Burke’s office and Acero.

Some 30 teachers and parents wedged into the foyer of Burke’s office between a lit-up Christmas tree and a statute of a horse wearing a green beanie labeled “Ald. Ed Burke.”

They demanded that he use his clout to pressure Rodriguez to agree to teachers’ contract demands, among them smaller class sizes and better compensation for teachers and paraprofessionals. Later Friday, Acero issued a statement confirming that the two, political allies, had met. The network did not explain the content or nature of the discussion.

About 500 teachers have been striking since Tuesday, with 7,500 students out of school. Seven of Acero’s 15 schools are in Burke’s ward.

Acero filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the Chicago Teachers Union and is appealing to the National Labor Relations Board to halt the strike. The charter management organization also sought a temporary restraining order to force teachers back to work. You can read the NLRB complaint below.

In response, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a press release, “Acero’s management is desperate and our pressure is working.” He insisted that the strike is a legal protest over wages and working conditions.

In response to strikers’ accusations that Rodriguez is uninvolved in the negotiations, Acero also issued a statement insisting that Rodriguez had met with management negotiators throughout the talks. Union officials have complained of Rodriguez being absent from the bargaining table.

Acero’s roots

Acero, once the nation’s largest Hispanic charter school operator, sprang from a community organizing tool to build Latino political power on Chicago’s Southwest side.

The history of Acero illustrates how charter schools in Chicago are intertwined in local politics, and how their growth would have been impossible without political support.

The United Neighborhood Organization was founded in 1984 by a Jesuit priest who recognized the struggle of immigrants in Chicago’s fast-growing Mexican-American community. Soon a South Side community organizer named Danny Solis joined and turned the organization’s focus first to local school politics and eventually to citywide influence.

Over the years, UNO’s power in neighborhoods grew as it nurtured local leaders like Juan Rangel, who eventually became CEO of the network. Both Rangel and Solis also ran for aldermanic positions, with Solis eventually winning an appointment in 1995 as alderman of the 25th ward, which encompassed the Pilsen neighborhood.

Rangel, meanwhile, had worked his way to the head of UNO just as then-Mayor Richard Daley and his school leadership team were ushering in an era of school choice in Chicago, and looking for community groups to take up the mantle.

“When charters emerged, UNO was one of the first entries into the charter market,” said Stephanie Farmer, a professor of sociology at Roosevelt University who researches charter school finance. “They did work their political connections to get state funding.”

UNO first proposed two charter schools in 1997.  Two decades later, it runs 15 schools spread across both the Southwest and Northwest sides of the city.

Enter Ed Burke. Halfway through an ambitious construction project for a new campus, UNO ran out of money and was forced to turn to its political allies, among them Burke, who helped the network get a $65 million low-interest loan from bankers. Several years later, Rangel supported Burke’s brother in his run for an Illinois House seat.

Farmer called this a clear example of the benefits of political patronage, without which Acero could not have grown as much as it has.

“They became patronage benefactors. It was both a way for UNO to build political power and then also a way for Burke to solidify his relations with the Latino political machine,” she said. “They were the only [charter school] who got as much state money as they did for the buildings.”

Rangel’s tenure at UNO ended abruptly and in disgrace. Accused of nepotism and misusing public funds, and under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he quit.

The charter school arm of UNO formally separated from the organization in 2013 and, in 2015, renamed itself the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN). In 2017, it rebranded itself as Acero in an effort to distance itself from Rangel’s misdeeds.

Today, charters in Chicago face a harsher climate than they did during Acero’s initial expansion.

Chicago Public Schools recommended this week that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide rising against the independently operated public schools. And the state’s new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters.

But Burke’s ability to call Acero’s CEO and encourage him to come to an agreement shows that politics may still play a significant role in the charter industry.

It also shows a more critical turn both toward machine politics and education in Chicago, Farmer said,  “The strikers are highlighting that Burke’s machine doesn’t work for the ward’s children.”