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Charter School Unions Still Up in the Air

Logo of the Chicago Teachers Union.
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The controversial issue of unions in charter schools will have to be tackled by the newly elected Chicago city council another day, after a council education committee failed to have enough members present on Friday.

The full committee did not attend the meeting, and so the pro-union resolution sponsored by Ald. Ricardo Munoz, (22nd Ward) and Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) was passed over.

There were only three aldermen in attendance. Moore, one of the resolution’s co-sponsors, was out of town.

“It is an individual choice by each charter school to allow their teachers to organize,” Munoz said.

Several other proposed ordinances have been held over for the next city council, including the controversial Clean Power Ordinance, which would require two coal-fired power plants on the city’s Southwest Side to reduce their emissions. The new council will be sworn in May 16.

There are 41 charter schools in Chicago, 15 of them being newly built or expanded this year, according to the Chicago Teachers Union.  The union estimates that in 10 years, one-third of the schools in the Chicago Public School system will be charter schools, which are privately run and receive public funding.

Some question whether charter schools are successful because they enjoy reduced labor costs without having to employ teachers who are members of the CTU.

“Is the growth of charter schools being driven by academic performance?” said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Or is it being driven by improvements to labor management techniques?”

On Friday, Sharkey asked the committee to reform and regulate charter schools and said he would prepare a list of questions regarding charter schools for the committee to consider.

“What are the checks and balances?” he said. “Where’s the oversight?”

Other speakers questioned some of the labor management practices at the charter schools.

“There has been an intentional effort, in some cases, to keep teachers rotating [between charter schools],” said James Thindwa, civic engagement coordinator for the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff.

Munoz said “the jury is still out” about the educational successes of charter schools. Teachers in 12 charter schools in Chicago have already formed unions, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS). Eight of them already have a union contract with the school district. Charter schools have become a trend in the Chicago public school system. Most of the growth of charter schools in the Chicago system occurred after 2004, according to CTU.

In January, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling that two Chicago charter schools were to be considered public schools.

“Charter schools are indeed public schools,” said Dawn Navejas, a teacher at Northtown Academy who spoke at the hearing.

Northtown Academy is a charter school in Chicago.

“Our public education system is not a private corporation,” Thindwa said.

Another teacher who spoke at the hearing, Brett Gaska, said some administrators in charter schools have actively tried to suppress unionization. He pointed to the Chicago Science and Math Academy on the North Side. In his statement at the hearing, Gaska, a teacher at charter school Ralph Ellison Campus, said the Chicago Science and Math Academy hired a law firm to prevent unionization.

“We needed the environment in which we could participate in forming policy,” he said.

The school has spent $113,000 on legal fees to fight unionization, according to Chicago ACTS.

“It’s truly upsetting that CSMA is spending scarce resources on fighting unions,” Gaska said.

On June 23, 2010, the same day employees at CSMA were to announce their unionization, teacher Rhonda Hartwell was fired, according to In These Times, a liberal online magazine in Chicago. Hartwell was known by the administration to be responsible for working to organize a union.

According to a press release from Chicago ACTS, the school later settled with Hartwell, awarding her $40,000. Thindwa condemned what he called an attack on collective bargaining.

“What we see is a wholesale assault on a fundamental right in this country,” he said. “Unions are the most powerful anti-poverty program,” said Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative. The Grassroots Collaborative, an alliance of nine community and labor advocacy groups, came to the hearing in support of charter school unions.

Speakers at the hearing also addressed how charter schools without unions may affect students.

“For [the students], the school has to be a place they can find a semblance of stability,” said Thindwa. “This is a right that is like any other right. It is non-negotiable.”

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