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Chicago Charter Schools Still in Business, Despite Strike

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The bulk of Chicago's public schools have been paralyzed by a teachers' strike, but the city's charter schools are operating as normal—or at least something approaching normal.

There are 119 charter schools in Chicago serving 52,000 students, and as of Tuesday, all of those schools remain open, said Andrew Broy, the president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, an advocacy group that represents the sector.

Just 10 of the Chicago charter schools are unionized, according to the network. Each of those unions operates independently at their schools, Broy noted, and are not linked with the Chicago Teachers Union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and leading the work stoppage. (See the full coverage provided by my colleague Stephen Sawchuk, who's on the scene.)

One of the questions to emerge during the strike was whether union-affiliated charter employees in Chicago would skip work to show solidarity with the strikers, but that has not happened, Broy said in an interview. In some cases, Chicago charters share campuses with regular public schools, and those close quarters have produced tensions, with strikers handing out leaflets near the schools and, according to Broy, telling passers-by that "charter schools aren't real schools." But for the most part, the situation at those locations has been calm, he said.

Sarah Hainds, a researcher with the CTU, said any such reports of friction on those campuses during the strike were likely overblown, though she noted that there were pre-existing tensions at school sites shared by charter and regular public schools.

Nationwide, only about 12 percent of charters, or 600 out of roughly 5,600 schools, have collective-bargaining agreements with unions, according to recent estimates from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Less than 10 percent of the charters that opened in the 2009-10 school year were affiliated with a union. Charters schools are, of course, public schools that operate with varying degrees of independence of local school districts.

The vast majority of unionized charters around the country, or 76 percent, are affiliated with the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, while 11 percent are linked with the AFT, and 12 percent were connected with both.

Broy said his organization has received three times as many inquiries as normal about charter schools from parents and others over the past few months, as news of the impasse between the district and the union has spread.

"There's no doubt that over the past two months there's been an increase in the amount of interest charters have received," he said. He suspects that interest has spiked in recent days. "A lot of parents are seeing their neighbors sending their kids to a charter school and are saying, 'Why are you still in session?'" Broy added.

Even so, Chicago's charters aren't likely to see an influx of students coming from the locked-out Chicago schools, Broy said. That's because the city's charters have a total of 18,000 students on waiting lists at various high-demand schools. There are, however, roughly 2,000 to 3,000 spaces available in charters where interest has not been as high, he added. Those schools are prepared to accept students from the traditional public system, though there's obviously a limit to their capacity, the Illinois charter official added.

But while the CTU's Hainds said many of the city's charter schools employ "great teachers who do a great job," she dismissed the idea that larger numbers of parents would seek out those schools, as a result of the strike. Many of the charter attributes that advocates boast about, such as extended school days and highly disciplined environments, are not especially appealing to some families, who may need more flexible schedules or have other concerns, she said.

"Chicago parents are supporting their teachers," Hainds said, "and I don't think because schools are out for a few days, those parents are going to leave the system."

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