Students or dollar signs?

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Striking charter school teachers fight for better, more humane schools

Chicago Teachers Union members at Acero charter schools made history this week, launching the first charter school strike in the nation’s history. More than 500 teachers and support staff at Acero’s 15 schools have been in contract negotiations for over six months and have been working without a contract since early October, when their previous agreement expired. 

Chicago strikersOn Dec. 4, Acero teachers, paraprofessionals, and supporters from across Chicago put on their warmest winter gear, hoisting signs and walking picket lines in the below-freezing weather. CTU member Andy Crooks said the strike comes down to a philosophical difference between Acero’s management and its staff: “What we are arguing is that we have students in our classrooms, and what Acero is telling us is those students are dollar signs. And they need the dollars, and we need the time with our students.”

With more than 98 percent of the membership voting to authorize a strike, Acero educators are putting themselves on the line in the fight for equal pay for equal work; better compensation, treatment, and career opportunities for paraprofessionals; smaller class sizes; and more resources to support children with special needs.  

“We all know that the secret to a vibrant, strong school community is a strong education force at the front of the classroom, and kids getting the resources they need,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said when she joined Acero staff on the picket line Tuesday. “Charter school educators want the same thing every parent and every teacher wants for their kids—for every kid, no matter where they live or go to school: the resources and attention to get a quality education and prepare them to be engaged citizens of the world.”

Chicago strikeWhile UNO/Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez earns more per year than Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, the educators at UNO/Acero work hundreds of hours more than CTU members in district schools, for an average of $13,000 less per year. Paraprofessionals—whom Acero teachers call “the backbone of our school communities”—earn even less. These stark discrepancies have become a bargaining flashpoint, with Acero educators shining a light on the fact that, while charter schools collect 8 percent more per student in funding than CPS schools, the high per-pupil funding is not translating into more investment in classrooms and students.  

CTU is also demanding true sanctuary schools for UNO/Acero’s overwhelmingly Latino students, as well as a commitment to hire and cultivate more Latino or Spanish-speaking educators. This includes providing paraprofessionals—whom management call “apprentices”—with a supportive path to the role of classroom teacher, and making a concerted effort to hire more teachers of color.

As fourth-grade teacher Yecenia Iturve told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Being a sanctuary school means that our students, and their family, have a safe place to come to. Our students need to know this is a safe place for them. With the way national politics are going, I think it’s necessary for this kind of language and protection to be in our contracts.”

Randi Weingarten speaks to strikers in Chicago

“Management had the power to settle a contract tonight,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey on the eve of the strike. “Instead they offered us more of the status quo that has plagued the charter industry for years. We will be on the picket line until they come back with an offer that respects our students and the people who educate them.”

Speaking to Acero educators on the picket line, Weingarten thanked teachers and paraprofessionals for standing up for their students, and said that charter school educators are joining the chorus of teachers and education professionals who have spoken out this year and won: “This strike isn’t about this one school, it’s about this entire model and how we set the stage for more accountability and better teaching and learning conditions in the charter school industry overall,” said Weingarten. 

Negotiations continued Dec. 4 as Acero staff prepared for another cold day united in protest. All eyes are on Chicago, and AFT members from around the country are sending solidarity and support to their striking brothers and sisters. You can show your support by sending a letter to Acero, following the CTU Facebook page, and joining the conversation with @AFTUnion on Twitter, using the hashtag #ctuactsstrike

[Leilah Mooney Joseph]