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Is the Nation's First Charter School Strike Imminent?

Teachers at a charter network in Chicago have voted to take the first step toward the country's first charter-school strike.

Earlier this week, 503 of the Chicago Teachers Union's 536 members at Acero's 15 charter schools voted to authorize a strike. (Most unionized members turned out to vote.) They are fighting for pay raises, smaller class sizes, increased special education staffing, and extended parental leave.

Teachers at four more unionized charter schools in the city—part of the Chicago International Charter Schools network—will vote on whether to authorize their own strike tomorrow. (Update, 11/2Nearly all of the union members at those four schools voted to authorize a strike. They could now strike for pay raises if bargaining fails.)

While there has been plenty of teacher activism lately—from six statewide walkouts this spring to a spate of teacher strikes in Washington state to a potential strike brewing in Los Angeles—charter schools have been mostly immune. Nationally, a small percentage of charter schools are unionized—only about 11.3 percent, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In fact, charter schools were in part created to free school leaders from many state and district regulations, including collective bargaining contracts.The idea is that this allows charter schools more flexibility to innovate and try new things, such as longer school days and school years.

But unions are making inroads in the charter space, and earlier this year, the Chicago Teachers Union merged with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which includes Acero teachers. Acero is the largest unionized operator in the Chicago district. 

"Our teachers, paraprofessionals, office coordinators, and IT staff work longer hours in a longer school day and year for less than public schools. That's got to change," said Andy Crooks, the president of Acero's division of unionized teachers, in a statement. 

Union officials also complained of high turnover rates at the charter network—as high as 50 percent on some campuses—growing class sizes, and a lack of a pathway for paraprofessionals to become certified special education teachers.

The union and Acero have been at a stalemate in contract negotiations. There have been 18 bargaining sessions, including one facilitated by a federal mediator, according to a statement from Acero.

Acero has offered teachers a 5 percent salary raise, and will continue to negotiate with the union. The network is working on contingency plans should a strike occur, officials wrote in a letter to parents. 

Acero was formerly known as UNO Charter Schools Network, which was plagued with scandals—including being charged in federal court with defrauding investors. The network narrowly avoided a teachers' strike in October 2016. It rebranded to Acero Schools last year.

Charters and Teachers' Unions 

Teachers' unions have historically mounted the strongest opposition to charter expansion efforts in state elections, legislatures, and courts. But unions have become more open to the idea of representing charter teachers, and the number of unionized charters might even grow as unions try to recruit new members in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that made it easier for teachers to drop their union memberships. Teachers' unions might find fertile ground for new membership in the charter sector and focus more organizing efforts there, although this has yet to be seen on any major scale.  

In California, for example, the state teachers' union made organizing charter schools a long-term strategic focus in 2014. Teachers at California Virtual Academy, which includes nine schools, recently unionized as an affiliate of the California Teachers Association. They negotiated their first contract with management this spring after being inspired to strike by teacher walkouts in West Virginia and Oklahoma. 

Back in Chicago, several charter and district teachers were skeptical of a partnership, but CTU President Jesse Sharkey (who was then the union's vice president) said the merger "strengthened our hand against charter operators." 

In a statement this week, Sharkey criticized Acero charter operators for spending large amounts on salaries for the network's top management.

"This contract fight is about educational justice—and the educational justice movement rising across this country has come home to Chicago's charter industry," Sharkey said. "We demand well-resourced schools, and we are prepared to strike to make that happen."

Education Week reporter Arianna Prothero contributed to this post.

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