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Another charter teachers strike hits Chicago, this time at schools run by multiple operators

Charter teachers rally in Chicago after announcing a strike day of May 1.
Charter teachers rally in Chicago after announcing a strike day of May 1.
Aaron Cynic

Update: Educators at the Chicago High School for the Arts came to a tentative agreement late on Wednesday evening, according to a statement from management.

More than 120 educators from four schools walked out Wednesday as part of Chicago’s third strike of charter teachers this school year.

The Chicago Teachers Union says it will be the first charter teacher strike in the U.S. to simultaneously target multiple charter employers.

On the first picket line that formed Wednesday evening, outside the Chicago High School for the Arts, students marched alongside teachers wearing red T-shirts bearing the name of the charter union and chanting “They see dollars, we see scholars.”

Educators from two Instituto del Progreso Latino schools, the Chicago High School for the Arts, and Latino Youth High School are expected to continue their strike with picket lines on Thursday morning.

After walking out, educators at the ChiArts and Latino Youth schools returned to the bargaining table on Wednesday evening.

Teachers at Youth Connection Leadership Academy, an alternative school that serves students who left traditional schools either because of suspension, behavioral issues or other circumstances, came to a tentative agreement on Wednesday evening and called off their planned strike.

The strikes coincided with a walkout by 450 instructors and adjunct faculty at City Colleges of Chicago who have been working without a contract for nearly three years.

The charter strikes are the latest effort of the Chicago Teachers Union to change conditions for teachers in the charter industry, and just one example of the national surge in labor actions by non-traditional educators over the last few years, such as charter school teachers in Chicago or non-unionized teachers in West Virginia.

The charter teachers want more resources for classrooms, a pay bump to bring their wages closer to those of district-employed teachers, and better counseling and nursing support for students. At ChiArts, a contract school geared toward students interested in the arts, teachers want management to pay into the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund for their pensions, rather than having to pay into Social Security.

“Our turnover rate is 20 percent every year,” said ChiArts English teacher Andrew Van Herik. “Low salaries mean that finding teachers is very difficult.”

That’s impacted student learning said Taylee Heldt, a senior at ChiArts, because all of her favorite teachers had left since she first started at the school as a freshman. “It really took a toll on my senior year,” she said. “We’re losing our community every year.”

José Ochoa, the executive director of ChiArts, said the school’s board had agreed to bring teachers up to 92 percent salary parity with district teachers, to limit special education caseloads and to include “sanctuary school” language in the contract that enshrines protections for undocumented students from immigration enforcement.

“This financial offer is possible only through the board’s agreement to use approximately $400,000 in reserve funds to support these salary increases, while also making adjustments to reduce our administrative staffing and expenses,” he said.

The pending strike comes as charter schools face a squeeze in cash flow, as Chicago Public Schools is withholding nearly $50 million in fourth-quarter charter funding over a dispute in how the city funds the schools.

In a statement, the interim principal of Youth Connection Leadership Academy said management hoped to keep its school open for the vulnerable population it serves, and added that the school operates under a tight budget.

“We are working hard to reach a fair multiyear contract agreement that recognizes the commitment, skills and expertise of our teachers, while also securing the fiscal stability of our unique alternative charter school,” Lorraine Cruz said.

In previous charter strikes, teachers and paraprofessionals won key demands. The contract negotiated with the Acero charter network, the nation’s first charter strike, aligns with pay scales and provisions in the Chicago Public Schools’ union contract, including annual raises over four years, caps on class size at 30 students, a shorter school year and language defining sanctuary protections.

For Emily Maassen, a U.S. history and human geography teacher at ChiArts, said that her school will need to start by increasing compensation and paying teacher pensions if it wants to keep teachers. She also says she wants management to take into consideration the voices of educators. “It’s a reoccurring theme, they don’t listen to teachers,” Maassen said.

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