Union targets charters, bargaining powers

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As the Chicago Teachers Union election heats up in the city, union officials are busy in Springfield working to expand its power and protect its members.

The legislative agenda includes setting limits on charters and winning back bargaining rights lost in 1995 when Mayor Richard M. Daley won control of schools.

But recently, the teachers union scored a coup when the Illinois House passed a bill rescinding the long-standing requirement that Chicago Public Schools teachers live in the city. The proposal now goes before the Senate.

Charter limits

One bill backed by the CTU and its statewide affiliate, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, would have prohibited charter operators from opening multiple campuses. The proposal was voted down by the House on March 29.

The proposal took direct aim at Chicago, where district officials have skirted the state’s charter cap by authorizing multiple campuses for the operators that received the first 15 charters in the city.

The Illinois Education Association, the state’s other major teachers union, opposes limits on charters, but there’s a twist: The IEA supports more charters, but only “with the proviso that the staff of those public charter schools are eligible to organize and collectively bargain, as our members would be in other schools,” says Ken Swanson, the IEA’s president.

Under changes proposed by the Bush Administration for the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization this year, school districts would be allowed to authorize an unlimited number of charters to replace existing failing schools.

Another bill under consideration would prohibit charters in Chicago from hiring teachers who are not state-certified and “highly qualified” as defined under federal law. Currently, 75 percent of teachers must be certified at charters established before 2003; 50 percent for charters that opened after that date.

Charter operators have mixed opinions about the benefits of hiring certified versus non-certified teachers. (See Catalyst, Feb. 2007.) But unions across the country “resent weaker credential requirements” for charter teachers, says Julia Koppich, an education consultant and a former education faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley.

Bargaining rights, tenure

In 2002, then-CTU President Deborah Lynch won back modest control over bargaining rights the union lost when the Republican-dominated legislature handed Daley control of Chicago’s public schools. But the district still held the upper hand on whether it would negotiate on class sizes, layoffs and scheduling.

“We want to make those mandatory subjects of bargaining again, just like they are for every other teacher in the state,” says Pamelyn Massarsky, a union lobbyist in Springfield.

While CTU President Marilyn Stewart pushes for more protection for probationary teachers in Chicago, a bill in Springfield would cut the probationary period for new teachers from four years to three in all districts except Chicago.

Last year, a similar bill passed out of committee and Chicago was added to its language. But the full House never voted on the measure and so far, this year’s version has not made it out of a House committee.

“An administrator should be able to thoroughly evaluate a teacher after three years,” says Dave Comerford, IFT spokesman. “Four years is an incredibly long time to have a teacher serve as an ‘at will’ employee with no rights.” Nationally, most teachers are on the tenure track after three years, Koppich says.

Clarice Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says, “I’m sure that three years is enough time to decide if someone is going to make a good teacher.”

The union also wants CPS teachers to be allowed to make pension contributions on pay they earn for working in afterschool and summer school programs. CPS teachers are the only teachers in the state who do not have that right, Massarsky notes, which means they forego the pension contribution the district would then have to make.