Charter strike

Empty schools, busy picket lines and Bird Box memes on the first day of CICS charter strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Kha Tran, a second-year social studies teacher at CICS Northtown, went on strike for the first time on Tuesday morning.

On the first day of a teachers strike at four Chicago International Charter Schools, the hallways of CICS Northtown sat empty. In the school’s gym, the whir from a lone custodian polishing the floor echoed through the cavernous, empty room.

But outside the school, an energized crowd of both current and former students joined some 30 teachers, paraprofessionals and supporters who were talking, joking and chanting while marching with signs calling for more funding and in support of school counselors and social workers.  

“My teachers told me they were going on strike, so I felt like I had to come and support them,” said junior Angel Ortega, who was spending his morning on the picket line.

Despite the charter network’s pledge to keep its schools open during a strike, only one student showed up Tuesday morning at Northtown’s campus, which normally holds 900 students.

Inside, Principal Torry Bennett walked briskly through through empty hallways and past the doors of silent classrooms.

“It’s incredibly sad to see a school that is normally bustling and just full of energy and positive interactions completely empty,” said Bennett, who has been the principal at Northtown for four years. “I have a large administrative team all of whom are ready to serve students, but I have only one student who made it into the building.”

With a population that is 80 percent from low- income families, Bennett said she is particularly concerned about students who are homeless or food insecure. “The fact that they are not here means they are not receiving the support services they need,” Bennett said. “We want families to know that while the strike is going on… our school is open.”

She said she supports an increase in teacher pay. “I want teachers to be fairly compensated.” she said. “You want to recruit the best and brightest in the field of education, and better wages will help us do that.”

Among educators’ demands are increased pay that rewards their education levels and experience, more counselors and social workers and smaller class sizes. They are also angry at recent changes in benefits, including no longer offering paid parental leave.

Union representatives, educators and management bargained until 10 p.m. Monday without reaching an agreement. More than 30 bargaining sessions have stretched over months.

Negotiations have stalled over a management proposal to cut school services in exchange for a pay raise. Union officials said the network has offered teachers an 8 percent raise in the first year of the contract, but only if they agree to staffing cuts in some areas like counseling and social workers.

Lisa Kane, a counselor at CICS Northtown Academy on the Northwest side, said her school was “very lucky” to have three full-time counselors and four full-time social workers for more than 900 students.

Those students are part of a particularly diverse student body that Krane says need support. At CICS Northtown, which administrators say is the most diverse charter school, more than half of the students are Latino, 20 percent of students are white, followed by 16 percent Asian, and 7 percent African-American.

But, in recent negotiations, those supports, and Krane’s job, seemed to be at risk. “They have threatened at the table that to fully fund our contract they’ll have to cut social worker and student services personnel,” Krane said.

“Student services are the glue that holds our schools together,” said Krane, a former English teacher who now provides academic and social-emotional counseling for juniors at CICS Northtown, many of whom Krane says are first-generation college students.

“We’re not looking to add positions, we’re just looking to keep the positions that we have,” she said.

Kha Tran, a second-year social studies teacher at CICS Northtown, said Tuesday morning that he also wanted to make sure that counselors or social workers weren’t cut in the negotiations. “Our student services team is very important to us and we want to make sure we keep them, that is one of the unique things about our schools,” said Tran.

He also hoped to see a reduction in class sizes, as he felt that smaller classes made it easier for his students to learn.

In his brief teaching career, Tran has experienced the uncertainty of working in public education. The first school where he taught, Amandla Charter school in Englewood, would go on to close this past summer. While he  was at School District 69 in Skokie, the district narrowly avoided a strike in 2016. Now, in his second year at CICS Northtown, he was on strike.

The bargaining team continued negotiation with management at 10 a.m.

Charter strike

Chicago’s second charter strike ends with pay wins for teachers and paraprofessionals

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Teachers and supporters march in front of Chicago International Charter Schools' corporate offices on the fifth day of the strike.

Chicago’s second charter school strike ended early Monday with the teachers union winning concessions on pay raises for teachers and paraprofessionals that will put their salaries on par with educators at non-charter schools.

Under the deal, reached overnight after two weeks without classes, the union said Monday that teachers at four Chicago International charter schools, known as CICS, will see an immediate 8 percent pay bump. Over the next four years, their salaries will rise more substantially.

Paraprofessionals will be brought up to district pay scales immediately, the union said.

Students and teachers at the four schools, are managed by Civitas Education Partners, will return to class Tuesday. CICS oversees 14 schools in all a complex organization that includes multiple managers.

The deal ends the the latest display of the Chicago Teachers Union’s organizing muscle ahead of several high-stakes contract negotiations, including contract with Chicago Public Schools that expires in the spring, and several other charter contracts still in talks.

The contract will apply only to the four schools that have a union and were on strike: Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison, Wrightwood, and Chicago Quest. But a spokesperson for CICS said Monday that the organization was “committed to equity” across its other 10 campuses and is in internal discussions about how the bargaining will impact teachers and classrooms at its non-unionized schools.

CICS had warned during the strike that it could face bankruptcy if it implemented all of the union’s demands. In a statement Monday, the network said that the issue of “limited funding” was an “unfortunate reality in public education.”

“In order to pay for such a significant salary increase, we will be forced to make certain cuts and compromises,” the statement said. “For example, we will likely need to limit the number of instructional coaches, assistant principals and other valuable support staff members.”

The tentative agreement brings to an end a contentious nine-day strike that started with picket lines and escalated late last week when dozens of teachers blocked the lobby of the Loop high-rise housing the offices of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The board president of CICS, Laura Thonn, is a partner in the Chicago offices of the firm.

Friday also was payday for teachers, who received substantially smaller checks than they would have had they been working.

The teachers union and CICS said that the tentative agreement also guarantees assistants in kindergarten, first-, and second-grade classrooms; paid parental leave for teachers; and a slightly shorter work day. The tentative agreement cuts the workday by 15 minutes but does not reduce instructional time, CICS said Monday.

One sticking point was also class size. The tentative agreement sets a “goal” of 28 students per class with a clause that limits class sizes to 30. Overcrowding at district schools has been a point of intensifying discussion this year, too, with a new report from the group Parents 4 Teachers showing that more than 1,000 classrooms in kindergarten through eighth-grade in Chicago have more than 30 students.

“We have finally won a contract that our schools, students, and our staff deserve,” said Jen Conant, a CICS Northtown teacher and member of the bargaining team.

The tentative contract will now go to the broader union membership for a vote.

Charter strike

On Chicago charter strike, how far will the teachers union go?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Picket signs used by protesting strikers from the Chicago International Charter Schools, who were targeting charter network CEO Elizabeth Shaw on Feb. 11, 2019.

Chicago’s second charter strike has now stretched over nine days. Beyond picket lines and hashtags on social media, the Chicago Teachers Union has blocked a lobby of a Loop high rise, delivered labor-themed Valentines to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall, and even wrangled appearances from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

How hard will the union push and what’s at stake in its efforts to win a new contract for teachers?

Related: Multiple CEOs, multiple layers: Strike puts charter management under microscope

It could be the future of charter organizing in Chicago, experts say. A victory could “buoy a local wave of new charter school strikes,” said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But if the contract doesn’t bring home the goods, failure could cast a pall over future organizing at dozens of Chicago charters — and untold numbers elsewhere.

Bruno expects in coming days to see increased pressure on members of Chicago International’s board, and possibly even a civil disobedience confrontation that ends in arrests. “They’ll look for ways to demonstrate that the ownership and leaders of this charter operator are not people who are invested in schools,” Bruno said, while “looking for ways to move the employer at the bargaining table.”

But the union’s strategy is risky.

Private employers can permanently replace strikers because its teachers are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act which protects public employees.

Chicago International, where teachers at four schools are on strike, has dug in its heels, arguing that granting union demands would bankrupt the network within a few years. “They want a compensation that is fiscally irresponsible for us to agree to,” said LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Education Partners, one of a handful of management companies contracting to run some of the network’s 14 schools.

The strike also comes in the final weeks of Chicago’s mayoral election. The union has backed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but critics wonder if the union’s effort in maintaining the strike means it’s paying less attention to getting Preckwinkle into office.

But the union has tried-and-true tactics, Bruno said, including political pressure and escalating protests that have helped win tough contract battles in the past. It’s become more combative since the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, won leadership of the union in 2010 with a promise to fight against educational inequalities.

That approach helped teachers in the 2012 strike, when thousands of union members went out on a weeklong strike that captured national headlines and pushed their demands beyond just wages and benefits to broader school-quality factors.

Union political pressure also worked in December, when 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job during the nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers.

Along with pickets throughout the four-day strike at schools across the city, the union also brought attention to how the network had used its political connections to expand. Strikers stormed the office of powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas thick with Acero schools. Burke then called the network’s CEO and pressed for an agreement. The strike ended shortly afterward.

The Chicago Teachers Union is also known for its staying power in strikes. In 2012, teachers stayed on strike an extra day to make sure that most members were able to review line items of the new contract before it was signed, despite pressure from Emanuel to end the strike. That strike lasted a total of seven days.

In the case of the Chicago International strike, Bruno said the charter network may shoulder the greater risk. The network, which oversees 14 schools run by five charter management organizations, some of which subcontract management to a third operator, has argued that meeting the union’s demands for wages could push the entire network into bankruptcy.

A strong contract that benefits teachers could also push teachers at the network’s 10 non-unionized schools to push for higher wages, Bruno said. “That could be a problem for the employer.”

While the union may be using tactics it has found successful in the past, management of Chicago International doesn’t respond to the same pressures, organizers acknowledged.

If the campaign doesn’t win raises for teachers, or results in cuts to the classroom, Bruno said it could risk slowing down the broader movement to unionize charters. “It gives teachers across the charter school system pause. They are no less interested in having a collective voice but they will remain somewhat uncertain that the union is the appropriate venue for that,” he said.

Richard Berg, an organizer in the Chicago Teacher Union’s charter division, said that because Chicago International and Civitas aren’t political in the same way that Acero is, the union has shifted to focus to the network’s unusual management structure and its connection to big business.

“If you look at their board, it’s not education people or community people. It’s corporate lawyers and money people,” Berg said. “Our strategy has been to say: OK, well, what is going to influence money people to care about children? The morality of it.”

A federal mediator already attends negotiations between Chicago International and the union.  The network requested federal mediation a month and a half ago, and since then a representative from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been present both at bargaining and in the discussions held independently on each side.

Both teachers and management blame the delay in coming to an agreement on the other side.

“We are determined to make these schools right for our students,” Berg of the union said. “We hope [management] will do the right thing sooner rather than later, because we have thousands of students that are missing school because of management’s intransigence.”

The network, meanwhile, said it’s focused on finding an agreement in negotiations to get back to the classroom. “We are focused on trying to end the strike so that our kids can get back in school,” Khan said.