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labor Nation's First Strike at Charter School Comes as Alternative Movement Slows in Chicago

Hundreds of educators at the city’s Acero charter school network walked off the job Tuesday, halting classes for 7,500 predominantly Latino students and launching the nation’s first strike over a contract at the publicly funded schools.

After years of growth, Chicago’s charter school movement is facing growing turbulence.

Illinois’ new governor has pledged to hold off on charter expansion, citing “challenges” the independently operated campuses have brought to the education ecosystem.

Chicago’s pro-charter mayor is stepping down, raising the prospect of a new direction for the city’s enormous school district. The Chicago Board of Education is expected to deny three new charter applications and close two low-performing schools this week.

Now hundreds of educators at the city’s Acero charter school network walked off the job Tuesday, halting classes for 7,500 predominantly Latino students and launching the nation’s first strike over a contract at the publicly funded schools.

The charter school strike offers a vivid illustration of how growing union influence and new political leadership might signal big changes for how charter schools operate in Chicago.

It does strike me that in Chicago, there’s been a significant transformation of the charter movement in that it doesn’t seem to be expanding,” said Robert Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Labor and Employment Relations.

The movement still touts influential business and philanthropic support, and local charter school supporters have won their own recent victories, to be sure.

Chicago charters have so far avoided expected cuts under a new state education funding law, and even gained millions of extra dollars from Chicago Public Schools this year. Supporters defeated legislation that would have curtailed a state panel’s ability to keep charters open or authorize new campuses.

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But in January, Chicago Teachers Union members approved changes to the labor group’s constitution and bylaws to merge with a division of unionized charter educators. That merger included about 500 unionized educators at the city's Acero charter schools, which is the rebranded name of a 15-school network last known as the UNO Charter School Network.

With that expanded clout, the CTU has pressed to negotiate contracts and mount the union’s own response to this year’s teacher strikes in traditionally conservative states such as Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma.

“We do hope that the world takes notice,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Monday, as negotiations with Acero representatives worked through the final hours before a midnight strike deadline.

“When there are (protesters wearing) red demanding more resources for schools, better compensation for teachers, educational justice across the red states … and then you see that actually moving to the charter industry in a place like Chicago, the world needs to take notice.”

Charters work in separate legal territory from traditional schools and can bargain over topics — such as classroom sizes — that state law bars from negotiations with traditional school educators in Chicago. Unionized charters also have broader flexibility to call strikes.

Today, the American Federation of Teachers says it represents educators at 238 charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

The labor group estimates 10 to 12 percent of U.S. charter teachers are unionized, but that roughly a quarter of Chicago’s charters are AFT shops. That’s one of the highest percentages of unionized charter schools in the country, according to the federation.

Those numbers are significant enough to spur union belief that contract wins at the independently operated campuses can reverberate into CTU’s own negotiations with the city’s next mayor that may begin as early as next summer.

“Whatever happens to charter schools in this city is likely to look more like what happens at neighborhood, conventional CPS schools,” said Bruno, the U. of I. professor who has closely studied the CTU.

“I say that because I think the issues that are driving the strike date, what’s pushed organizing and what’s led to the merging of these two bargaining units (are) common threads, a common theme. And the CTU’s objective is to create a standardized set of conditions they think all teachers and paraprofessionals deserve.”

That trend could have significant implications for how charter teachers are paid or how school classrooms are staffed. At the same time, there’s tension among charter supporters that union demands are eroding their independence.

“CTU’s been pretty clear that they want to make an example out of charter schools,” Acero spokeswoman Helena Stangle told the Tribune in a recent interview.

“Our focus is to be competitive, to be reasonable, but to maintain our identity as Acero schools as well,” she said.

Charters proliferated in Chicago as the city expanded school choice options following Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Renaissance 2010 education reform initiative.

Yet that strategy has come under scrutiny as thousands of schoolhouse seats go unfilled, the district’s student population plummets, and many campuses are left with sparse budgets and unequal access to courses and updated facilities.

While the state’s new education funding formula promises to channel money to under-resourced schools, lawmakers still must add billions of dollars in the coming years to make the system work as intended.

Democratic Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker has said that lack of money prompts his desire to hold back on expanding charters until policymakers can ensure they’re funding schools that already exist.

“I think a moratorium doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to the idea that charter schools exist in the city of Chicago or around the state, but rather, at the moment anyway, we have enough charter schools and we need to sort of settle in and figure out how we’re going to manage those schools,” Pritzker said last month.

“There are a lot of challenges that those schools have brought, and we just need to let all that sink in at the moment and make sure that we’re focusing on the issue of funding our schools properly.”

While Pritzker’s voiced his opposition to charter expansion, CTU and its charter division are trying to negotiate favorable terms on class sizes, staffing, pay scales and paid time off.

“Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions, and our students deserve better. We are willing to go to the line, we are willing to fight for our students,” said Martha Baumgarten, a fifth-grade teacher at Acero’s Fuentes campus.

Acero set out contingency plans for its 15 campuses, as negotiations proceeded without word of a clear breakthrough Monday evening.

The network has told parents it would cancel all classes, athletics and extracurricular activities in the event of a strike. School buildings would remain open and supervised by nonunion staff members.