ASPIRA charter teachers launch union drive, want more transparency

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Teachers at four charter schools run by ASPIRA, a national organization focused on Latino youth development, turned in union cards this week—the second Chicago charter to launch a union drive. For at least one ASPIRA teacher, the move has little to do with paychecks and more to do with boosting transparency about school operations.
Teachers at four charter schools run by ASPIRA, a national organization focused on Latino youth development, turned in union cards this week—the second Chicago charter to launch a union drive.

For at least one ASPIRA teacher, the move has little to do with paychecks and more to do with boosting transparency about school operations. That includes posting teacher pay scales to explaining the criteria used in staff evaluations.

“It’s not really about money,” says Nicholas Aquino, a history teacher at ASPIRA Early College High School. “A lot of it is about decision-making and the quality of our teaching, having the time to analyze data and collaborate with other teachers to improve our teaching.”

Aquino says he “connects really strongly to the school’s mission” and felt “emotional” when ASPIRA hired him in 2007, the year Early College opened. His mother and godmother were “aspirantes”—community activists involved with ASPIRA long before the organization joined the charter movement.

“But it was disappointing that the school was not living up to that mission,” he says.

Aquino says teachers are frustrated by overwhelming demands and want management to better explain core strategies like the teacher evaluation system. He says the resulting teacher turnover continues to zap the schools’ ability to forge deep connections with parents and the community.

Teachers can lose points during their formal performance reviews for confusing reasons. As an example, Aquino says his scores were once knocked down simply because his lesson plan didn’t include a quiz.

Moreover, deadlines have piled up on teachers, with little warning from administrators. Last semester, Aquino says teachers were grappling with data reports on student assessments when administrators suddenly demanded teachers also produce portfolios on student literacy gains.

“Deadlines build up and it’s very exhausting,” he says.

The schools do have a mechanism for addressing such concerns. A “strategic planning team” of teachers and administrators meets several times each year. But Aquino says the group has enacted little change.

Two scandals that gripped ASPIRA last year may also be a factor in the push to unionize. Reports of illegal student strip searches and an investigation into grade-tampering rocked the charter in 2009. One teacher, Meg Sullivan, claimed she was fired for blowing the whistle and filed suit.

Aquino says teacher turnover is so high that most of the teachers involved are now gone. The union push is largely unrelated. But he did say that unionization may well have happened earlier if teachers did not feel so “uneasy” about challenging school leadership.

ASPIRA CEO Jose Rodriguez and Board Chair Sonia Sanchez did not return Catalyst calls.

Next steps

The union bid is now in the hands of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. Organizers with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), the union that ASPIRA teachers hope to join, say approximately two-thirds of the 100 teachers who work for ASPIRA turned in union cards last week.

The IELRB checks the cards to ensure a majority of teachers support unionization and has 90 days to certify the results.

Last year, teachers at three Chicago International Charter Schools run by the education management group Civitas established a union—but not without a lengthy court battle. (Teachers at the Chicago Talent Development High School, a contract school with union backing, are also organizing outside of the Chicago Teachers Union contract.)

When Civitas teachers turned in union cards last year, the organization’s management team spent months challenging the jurisdiction of the IELRB. Administrators successfully moved the case to the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that their employees work for a private firm and not a public entity. The NLRB ultimately agreed and set up a secret ballot vote to gauge employee interest in forming a union.

Advocates say the vote ensures a fair measure of employee interest, but union supporters say the sometimes lengthy period leading up to the vote gives employers time to harass organizers and undermine the union push.

That legal route may be cut off for ASPIRA management. Gov. Pat Quinn signed charter school legislation in 2009 that, among other major changes, clarified sole jurisdiction for the IELRB in charter union bids.

Aquino says ASPIRA board officials, including Sanchez, expressed interest and at least tacit support for unionization at a meeting on Monday night.

Hugo Hernandez, an organizer with the American Federation of Teachers who works with Chicago ACTS, says the Civitas and ASPIRA situations are clearly different. Civitas teachers did not technically work for the charter holder, Chicago International Charter Schools, making it unclear if they were public or private employees under the law. But ASPIRA of Illinois holds both the charter for all four schools and manages employees, too.

According to Hernandez, more charter teachers may soon declare their intention to unionize. For fear of jeopardizing teachers’ jobs, he declined to name any schools where his organizing is making headway.

“There are countless numbers of teachers across the Chicago area that we are having conversations with,” he says.

Should ASPIRA teachers win bargaining rights, they will officially join Chicago ACTS and form a local council alongside Civitas teachers. The union would be affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

 
Gail Purkey, a spokesman with the IFT, says ASPIRA teachers would form their own bargaining team and—as did Civitas teachers—potentially turn to the IFT and AFT for technical support.