News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Charter school teachers fight to unionize, and to win over Rahm

The latest battle over privatizing education in Chicago



On February 20 a scrappy bunch of teachers from the North Lawndale and Urban Prep charter schools took to the streets to announce they were trying to form a union.

At the time many of us were consumed by the ongoing mayoral election, which as you know ultimately resulted in Rahm Emanuel's reelection.

I'm happy to say that my internal wounds are healing.

But that's all the more reason to catch up on the teachers' unionization effort and the ongoing fight to privatize Chicago's public schools—one of my favorite topics.

As you may recall, charter schools are publicly financed, privately run institutions that in most cases are not unionized. They're also supported by a lot of rich and powerful business titans who are of the decidedly antiunion persuasion.

One of these backers is a certain private equity investor by the name of Bruce Rauner, whom the citizens of Illinois elected governor last November.

Speaking of internal wounds.

There are two schools of thought as to why wealthy movers and shakers love charters so much. The first, generally articulated by the titans themselves, holds that they're a benevolent bunch dedicated to helping poor children get a chance to rise to the top.

The other viewpoint—which is usually the one I subscribe to—is that they're a bunch of rapacious carnivores looking to gain even more influence over elected officials by undercutting the teachers' unions that oppose them.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle, though leaning precariously close to me.

Anyway, at the moment it's pretty obvious that the charters scored a big victory when Rauner ousted Pat Quinn in November's election. Rauner then appointed Beth Purvis, an enthusiastic charter advocate, to serve as the state's education secretary. Purvis used to run the Chicago International Charter Schools, which operates 16 campuses in town.

Purvis is much beloved by other charter school advocates, including Robin Steans, director of Advance Illinois. Steans told the Tribune that Purvis is someone who can successfully "block and tackle" for Rauner.

Which is great news if Rauner ever gets around to organizing a state football team.

In addition, Rauner named Tony Smith, another charter school advocate, as the superintendent of the state board of education.

By the way, before he went into education, Smith was a star lineman at Cal-Berkeley. More good news for that gubernatorial football team.

So we now have an education secretary who's making $250,000, a schools superintendent making $225,000, and a former superintendent making $89,000 in severance payments.

That's because Christopher Koch—Smith's predecessor—had to be compensated when he was replaced by Smith.

These were all moves by Rauner, who earlier this month cut $1 million from the state's program for autistic children to help cover a budget hole.

Coincidentally, one of the great drawbacks to charter schools is that their teachers are poorly paid, even after years on the job.

It's hard to say exactly how much the charters pay, because they don't routinely post staff salaries, as regular public schools are required to. But veteran teachers at North Lawndale and Urban Prep tell me they started at about $40,000 a year. After up to six years on the job they're making around $50,000, which is still less than a starting teacher in regular public schools in Chicago.

In addition, they generally work longer hours and have no job security. When they sign their one-year contracts, the charter school teachers are not so much protecting their rights as acknowledging they have none. They're at-will employees who can be fired at almost any time.

In contrast, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, has a deal that guarantees she'll receive her full $250,000-a-year salary until her contract runs out later this year—even though she stepped down recently amid a federal investigation into the awarding of a $20.5 million no-bid contract to a company she used to work for.

This is all to improve eduction for our children, of course.

As Rauner has reminded us, it's a basic economic principle that good pay attracts top talent.

Yet somehow it doesn't apply to charter schools and the teachers they want to recruit and retain. It's as if the bosses at Microsoft decided to challenge Amazon by paying its engineers less and making them work more.

Not surprisingly, many charter schools have trouble holding on to their teachers for more than three or four years.

And the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff—a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers—has been growing since it started organizing here about nine years ago. It now represents teachers at 29 different charter campuses in Chicago, including some affiliated with Aspira, Civitas, UNO, Instituto, and Youth Connection.

If organizers succeed at North Lawndale and Urban Prep, the alliance will represent almost a quarter of the charter school teachers in Chicago.

At the same time, though, charters are currently asking the Chicago Board of Education to open as many as 20 new campuses in the city. So the cat-and-mouse game will continue, with the unions trying to organize old charter schools as new charters open.

Ironically, the charter school teachers are looking to Mayor Emanuel for assistance. They're hoping he'll pressure the leaders at North Lawndale and Urban Prep to remain neutral in the union-organizing attempt.

Back in February, Emanuel said he supported the collective bargaining rights of charter school teachers.

But that was in the heat of his reelection battle, when he was trying to win votes by convincing Chicagoans he really was a liberal Democrat—as opposed to the closet Republican he acted like in his first three years on the job.

On this issue, as in others, it's as though two forces—Elizabeth Warren and Mitt Romney—are battling for control of the mayor's soul. The charter school teachers are hoping that somehow Romney will lose again.  v

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