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Noble Charter Schools Teachers Take Steps to Unionize

Teachers from Chicago's largest charter school network, with support from local politicians, held a press conference today to explain why they are taking steps to unionize. The teachers at the Noble Charter Schools Network first announced their intent to form a union on Friday morning.

Ivy McDaniel, who has taught science for the Noble Charter Schools Network for four years, underscored the need for educators to have more of a say in decision-making. School policies, she said, have a direct impact on student learning. Yet teachers who have the most direct insight into the needs of their students don't feel empowered to share their input with administrators. "Our students deserve a stable and fair community with teachers who are empowered to advocate for them and to determine the direction of our school," she said at today's press conference.

noble_mcdaniel.jpgAmong the politicians voicing their support of Noble's union effort were state Senator Daniel Biss, state Representative Theresa Mah and Treasurer Kurt Summers. "This is simple," said Summers. "There's a legal right to organize without interference or intimidation."

In fact, the teachers attended a meeting of the Noble board after the press conference to ask members not interfere with the decision to organize. Science teacher McDaniel said that Noble teachers are allotted just five days off per school year, including sick days, and that they are giving up one of those days to attend the board meeting to ask members to remain neutral as educators decide their next steps.

"At this moment in time, when schools are starving for resources, don't waste $1 million on union busting," said Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa to Noble's board. He represents the 35th ward, which includes the campus of Noble's Pritzker College Prep.

If their effort proves successful, the 800 teachers and staff members at 17 campuses in the Noble Network of Charter Schools—who are collectively responsible for educating 12,000 students—would be the largest charter union in the nation.

The Union of Noble Educators issued an open letter on Friday to the charter network's founder and CEO Michael Milkie and school administrators. "We want a voice in decisions, stability in our schools and, most importantly, the best possible future for our students," the educators wrote in a letter with 131 signatures.

Milkie acknowledged in a statement the teachers' right to "organize or not organize," but warned that operating under a union contract could result in the charter network giving up its power to run schools the way it sees fit.

"In my experience as a former [Chicago Public School] teacher, I believe a restrictive union contract could eliminate the curriculum and flexibility we have to best serve our students' needs," he wrote in the statement.

Charters were founded as innovation labs where teachers could create their own experimental schools free from district and union bureaucracy. (This Education Week article by Arianna Prothero takes a look at how the charter schools movement has evolved over its 25-year history.) But recently the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS) has worked to organize teachers and staff at 32 of the city's charter schools, reports CBS Chicago.

Teachers at several Chicago charter schools have unionized, including the ASPIRA network. Last week, ASPIRA's union, ChiACTS Local 4343, voted to permit a strike over stalled contract negotiations. A strike date may be set as early as Tuesday. It would be the first charter school network strike in the United States, according to chicagoacts.org.

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis expressed support for Noble teachers and staff in a letter, calling them "courageous" and writing that she is "proud of their desire to strengthen their collective voice to better advocate for the students they serve." She also wrote that she hoped the Noble administrators would not stand in their way. "I hope the Noble CEO, principals, and board of directors grant these educators the respect they have earned and do not interfere with this process, for it is very important that they are free to organize to create the type of learning community and environment that all of Chicago's children deserve."

Lewis's support does not mean CTU would represent Noble teachers and staff. Charter unions are not affiliated with the Chicago Teachers Union. Each unionized charter network negotiates a separate contract, independent of the Chicago Teachers Union contract, according to the Chicago Tribune. 

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