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Chicago Teachers Union members vote to strike four operators at five charter schools

By staff |
April 12, 2019
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Chicago, IL - Five charter schools could face strikes in coming weeks, as educators battle for living wages, adequate student supports, pension rights and protections for immigrant and diverse learners.

After two historic strikes against charter operators, including the first in the nation's history last December, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members who work at five charter schools announced strike vote results April 9, at Instituto del Progreso Latino, one of the charter operators with which union members are bargaining. The five schools employ 134 CTU members who educate almost 1800 students.

94% of union members voted, and of those, 97% voted in favor of striking if there is no progress at the bargaining table.

Union teachers and support staff at the schools are demanding protections for diverse learners - including protections built into the contract to provide special education students with the services they both need and are entitled to under federal law. They're demanding more support for English language learners and immigrant students, including sanctuary protections enshrined in contract language, adequate staffing and resources for schools that have historically suffered from serious shortages of both, and equal pay for equal work with their colleagues in CPS. At one school, teachers are also battling to force the operator to contribute to their pension fund, a move opposed by the same wealthy businessman, Jim Mabie, who is trying to gut the pensions of striking Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians. Mabie sits on both boards.

"We're announcing our results together today because our issues are the same," said Chris Baehrend, chair of the CTU charter division. "Our interests are student interests. Our employers' interests are business interests. And we've seen the same issues, with lack of access to special education, larger class sizes, refusing to pay fair wages, and lack of supports for students. We're serving these operators notice: We're going to change the way they operate because our students deserve better."

Chronic under-resourcing and poor wages and working conditions drive high turnover rates at charter schools, undermining students' educational progress and the stability and sustainability of school communities. Charter educators want to change those dynamics as part of an effort to reform the entire charter industry, which is plagued by low investment in academic programs and student supports and inflated executive salaries and management fees.

IHSCA, the Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy, where the rally and strike vote results will be announced, serves more than 700 high school students. IHSCA is bargaining a joint contract with another small Instituto-controlled school, IJLA, the Instituto Justice Leadership Academy. The school serves just under 100 students aged 17-21 who previously left school and are seeking a high school diploma. Both schools are overwhelmingly low-income and Latino, with high percentages of limited English-speaking students.

"Our staff voted unanimously to authorize a strike today," said Gema Gaete, who works at IJLA. "We say enough is enough with organizations opening up charter schools and not providing the resources necessary for an adequate education for our students. Our students deserve special education services - and a school that follows the federal law for those services. They deserve all the resources necessary for English language learners. It's time to stop shortchanging our kids. We're ready to strike to get those resources to our students."

At ChiArts, more than 40 teachers are fighting for more classroom resources, from science equipment to books. They're also trying to force management to pay into their pension fund, something that every charter operator receiving CPS funds is legally obligated to do. Management at the publicly funded selective enrollment school of 600 students has also refused to provide detailed financial information.

"I'm in total solidarity with the teachers, social workers, support staff, students and parents who are leading this education movement," said Byron Sigcho Lopez, alderman-elect of the 25th Ward, which houses Instituto. "This movement is standing up to the abuse of charter operators, who cut student services to support their profits, and we demand the education our students deserve."

At Latino Youth High School, or LYHS, the school's employer, Pilsen Wellness Center, is insisting on a longer school day and school year in addition to other reductions in contractual benefits, while refusing the union's demand for equal pay for equal work, in a school whose 220 students are almost 90% Latinx and 10% Black. The school's employer has brought in proprietary mental health services which only serve students with Medicaid and certain private health insurance plans, leaving at least 60 highly traumatized students without mental health services during the day because PWC cannot profit from servicing them.

"Our CTU members at these five schools are fighting for our most vulnerable students," said CTU officer Maria Moreno. "They're fighting for contracts that provide the resources our students need, and we'll be on the picket lines if that's what it takes to fight these operators' cutbacks and bad practices."

At YCLA -Youth Connection Leadership Academy - CTU members are bargaining with charter operator YCCS, which, like many operators, has larded up on executives positions while shortchanging spending on academic needs for students. YCCS pays YCLA's CEO almost $180,000 per year and the CEO's top deputy almost $160,000 per year, with some educators making barely a fifth of that. Management has drawn complaints that range from body-shaming to shortchanging special education students at the overwhelmingly Black, low-income school on Chicago's South Side.

Charter operator Instituto has claimed it has concerns about the validity of the strike votes at IHSCA and IJLA. Educators have flatly rejected that claim as a smear to dodge serious resource issues the charter operator has created, and they welcomed the opportunity to provide extensive documentation that would verify the legitimacy the vote. CTU members expect to set a strike date in the next two weeks.