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Unionized Chicago charter schools push for new remote learning agreements. Will they succeed?

Charter teachers announce a strike date outside of outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.
Charter teachers announce a strike date outside of outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.

Five hundred teachers at Acero, the second largest charter network in Chicago, led the nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers in December 2018. They won a pay boost, more support for their primarily Latino students, and a union contract.

Now, as countrywide efforts to contain the coronavirus have shuttered school buildings, Acero teachers again are leading the way in securing labor protections, this time for remote work. Last week they signed a pact that guarantees their existing salaries through June and provides they’ll be available to students four hours each school day — even as negotiations at district-run schools continue.

Chicago has led the nation in charter unionization, with 10 union contracts at different charter networks. Now, union organizers are pushing for agreements to cement their hard-won victories and perhaps even expand in a sector that largely has lacked labor protections and representation.

While the Acero agreement has buoyed union leaders, prospects for agreements appear less encouraging at other charter networks.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s charter school division has reached out to management at unionized charters to create new agreements on work hours, evaluations, and other issues in the remote teaching and learning setup.

They’ve found resistance. Aside from Acero, weeks of negotiations have not produced new labor agreements. In other cases, union organizers said, management has been reluctant to even negotiate with the union or to recognize a newly formed union.

Union organizers aren’t surprised.

“Charters are really like the Wild West. We have had to force them to comply with things coming down from ISBE [the state board of education],” Chris Baehrend, chair of the charter division of the Chicago Teachers Union, said.

Besides salary and work hours provisions, Acero’s memorandum of agreement suspends discipline for minor infractions until after June 30, when the agreement ends.

“We wanted to be mindful of the reality of COVID-19 on colleagues, be they teachers or administrators or support staff, while creating a practice that would support our students during this time,” said Helena Stangle, communications director at Acero.

At the four unionized schools under the umbrella of Chicago International Charter Schools, educators say they have struggled to convince management to come to the table to craft a new agreement on how to handle the new working environment. They said that Civitas Education Partners, which manages the four schools for CICS, has required teachers to reply to emails within an hour. That demand, teachers said, is unreasonable. Managers also plan to continue teacher evaluations, which many public schools have suspended during the first months of virtual learning.

Unlike the district, which formally began remote learning this week, schools run by CICS have conducted remote learning for several weeks.

“It is important to settle what the details of that look like before we go even further,” Jen Conant, a math teacher at CICS Northtown, said. “Their refusal is a clear indicator of irresponsible management practices.”

The weeks of remote teaching without an agreement, and with shifting plans, have left teachers feeling confused and demoralized, educators said at a Chicago International Charter School board meeting Tuesday. About 100 union educators joined the phone meeting to push for a new teaching agreement.

“Since we have started remote learning, expectations have been all over the place,” CICS teacher Kimberly Randle said. “It’s confusing to the students and parents, and staff, who need clear communication.”

LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Education Partners, did not directly address the union’s allegations around work requirements and evaluations. In a statement to Chalkbeat, she wrote that the company had met with the union and would continue to do so. “As our schools have moved to distance learning, our location of work has changed, but the expectations of teachers and staff remain reasonable and in alignment with our existing agreement,” the statement read. “CEP has met with the union, and continues to do so throughout the crisis, to discuss their questions and concerns as a result of this global pandemic.”

At Epic Academy College Prep, a charter high school of 521 students in South Chicago, teachers announced their intention to form a union just days before campus closed. They said they would like to address teacher turnover, support for English language learners, and the need for more transparency from the administration. Teachers said they have received little instruction from the administration about remote learning.

As they wait for the charter network to recognize the union, they are holding virtual pep rallies and town halls to keep morale up, while considering mail-in ballots for a union vote. They said the administration has required teachers to attend meetings where they are urged not to participate in the union drive.

Epic administrators did not respond to requests for comment.

“Our staff has been really good about maintaining support and contact,” Gabrielle Snyder, a 10th grade English teacher. “We have a chance to improve our school and we are not being given any instruction and teachers are not being given a chance to share what they need to handle this.”

The social distancing mandate has deprived advocates of many of their usual organizing tools: picketing, in-person meetings, lobbying, and rallying. Organizers face a steep challenge, particularly among charter, but say that they’re ready to make the most of the tools at their disposal.

“Employers are legally obliged to negotiate changes in working conditions per the labor relations act,” the union’s Baehrend said. “I really worry about charter teachers that don’t have a union.”

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