gates grants

In latest move, Gates Foundation looks to help — and learn from — charters serving students with disabilities

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s new charter school strategy is taking shape.

The foundation has made four grants in recent months focused on helping charter schools better serve students with disabilities. That’s one of the ways Bill Gates said last fall that the influential foundation would focus its education giving over the next five years, along with efforts to grow networks of schools and improve curriculum. (The Gates Foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

The foundation hasn’t made a public announcement of the new investments, but its website lists four groups that have been awarded money for the work.

Last month, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools was granted nearly $1.2 million “to elevate policy-advocacy for students with disabilities in charter schools.” The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools got $300,000 “to support national charter policy-advocacy on growth, quality and special education integration.” And the National Center for Learning Disabilities netted $700,000 “to help build an evidence base for supporting students with disabilities.”

In July, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington, won more than $1.2 million “to identify the instructional, curricular, organizational, cultural, and policy conditions associated with effective delivery of special education in charter schools.”

The four grants amount to a relatively modest total of about $3.4 million. Gates, the biggest philanthropic funder of education in the country, said last year that the foundation planned to spend $1.7 billion over the next five years on U.S. education, about 15 percent of which would go to charter school efforts.

“We are investing in charters initially for this work because we believe they have the autonomy and flexibility to innovate; and because we acknowledge that research shows that historically charter schools have underserved students with disabilities, in terms of numbers and levels of support,” Gates deputy director Don Shalvey said in a statement.

A 2013 national study showed that 8 percent of charter school students qualified for special education services, but 11 percent of students in nearby district schools did. It’s not entirely clear why the difference exists; critics argue that charter schools are more likely to push needy students out or not enroll them in the first place, while some charter officials say it reflects their decision not to unnecessarily label students who need extra academic help.

One New York City-focused study found that the special education gap in elementary school was because fewer disabled students applied to charters and fewer charter students were classified as disabled, not because special education students left charters at a higher rate. Nationally, charter schools suspend students with disabilities more frequently than traditional public schools. Other research on this question is fairly limited.

Shalvey said the goal of the grants is to review “what has worked in the past,” including in charter schools that are successfully serving students with disabilities, and “produce the knowledge that will help us scale beyond the initial group of charter schools.” Additional grants will be announced in the coming months, according to the foundation.

Gates has given money to other charter school efforts in recent months as well: The Diverse Charter Schools Coalition netted nearly $530,000, and the foundation is spending $9.8 million to help construct a Green Dot charter high school in south Seattle. The City Fund, a new group founded by a collection of education leaders who support the “portfolio model,” received $10 million for work in Oakland; in other cities, this approach has meant the expansion of charter schools.

Outside of charter schools, Gates has made a number of $90,000 grants to help school districts with college advising.

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.”