Organizing charter teachers, Chicago style

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When teaching loads spiked last year, teachers at three Chicago International Charter Schools decided they needed a more formalized role in school management. Months later—after quietly organizing and pressing their peers to sign union cards—the formation of Chicago’s first charter school teachers union is but a step away.

Should the state’s Labor Board rule that the teachers followed protocol in their bid to unionize, they will begin crafting a new labor contract that will largely come to define their sought after “voice” in school decision making.

The nature of that contract and how closely it resembles traditional teachers union contracts will be closely watched by national observers, from advocates to agnostics in the highly partisan world of teachers unions and charter schools. Simply put, a tiny sliver of the nearly 4,000 charter schools across America are unionized and there are precious few examples of how to marry job protections and other benefits afforded to unionized teachers with the operational flexibility that charters like to trumpet.

When teaching loads spiked last year, teachers at three Chicago International Charter Schools decided they needed a more formalized role in school management. Months later—after quietly organizing and pressing their peers to sign union cards—the formation of Chicago’s first charter school teachers union is but a step away.

Should the state’s Labor Board rule that the teachers followed protocol in their bid to unionize, they will begin crafting a new labor contract that will largely come to define their sought after “voice” in school decision making.

The nature of that contract and how closely it resembles traditional teachers union contracts will be closely watched by national observers, from advocates to agnostics in the highly partisan world of teachers unions and charter schools. Simply put, a tiny sliver of the nearly 4,000 charter schools across America are unionized and there are precious few examples of how to marry job protections and other benefits afforded to unionized teachers with the operational flexibility that charters like to trumpet.

“It’s been all consuming just getting the cards signed,” says Emily Mueller, a Spanish teacher at the Chicago International-Northtown campus who played a central role in the union drive. “Just talking about contract issues seems like a major relief.”

Some charters, like the Green Dot schools that originated in Los Angles, started up as unionized shops and feature lightweight contracts that give principals substantial hiring and firing authority in exchange for higher teacher pay and clear pathways for influencing curricular and other educational choices.

Other charters, like two schools started recently by the United Federation of Teachers in New York, have looked for new ways to run schools while sticking to the rules laid out in the traditional UFT contract. Indeed, teachers at the schools have staggered their class schedules to provide a longer school day for children—without violating the limits on working hours spelled out in their union contract.

Illinois law forbids Mueller and the other Chicago International teachers from adopting the local contract used by the Chicago Teachers Union. But, if union rights are granted, the teachers will also not be starting from scratch. They will join a network of about 70 charter schools organized by the American Federation of Teachers called the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Administrators (ACTS).

According to an AFT official, about a third of the schools operate under pre-existing local labor contracts, another third use modified contracts and the rest have struck their own labor accords.

During the union push, Mueller admits that some teachers worried about creating a working environment that was complicated by union rules, especially anything that might cap the amount of time that teachers can spend working with children and parents.

But it was workload that catalyzed the unionization push. Civitas Schools, the education management group that runs Northtown and the two other Chicago International charters that may unionize, faced a tightening budget and asked teachers to teach an additional class, Mueller contends. She says class sizes have also increased.

“It’s just kind of exhausting,” she says. “And it’s hard to get to all the phone calls [to parents] that I need to make.”

The lightweight Green Dot contracts do not stipulate the number of hours that teachers work, but teachers are generally paid competitive wages as a result.

Mueller also says she hopes that her school’s focus on using student test score results to direct instructional strategies will also not be impacted by contract talks. But some of her peers, she admits, think that school administrators focus too much on tests.

It’s unclear how such issues will be tackled contractually. But Mueller says: “Nothing is going to happen during negotiations that the teachers are not in favor of.”

Bread and butter issues will also crop up, of course.

Chicago International teachers are paid competitively in their early years, but salary ranges do not keep up with the step and lane increases afforded to CTU members and suburban school teachers. That has lead to teacher turnover issues, according to both Mueller and a top-ranking Chicago International administrator.

Mueller says the increased teaching load only exacerbated turnover at her school. The gravity of the problem, she adds, forced teachers to sit down and discuss unionization. They contacted a CTU member and started getting help from ACTS soon after.

Interestingly, the higher turnover has also been a major roadblock for unionizing the charter schools. Mueller says teachers have to stay around long enough to form a critical mass of union activists.

Union organizers felt a “great sense of urgency” to finish the campaign because, beginning this spring, teachers will be signing individual contracts with Civitas and committing to teaching another year. Who stays and who goes could affect the teacher count that is central to getting the Labor Board’s approval for forming a union.

“It was kind of like now or never,” she says.