By Meredith Francis
For the first time in U.S. history, charter school teachers could strike.
Though the Chicago Teachers Union narrowly avoided a strike last week, over 500 teachers from the Uno Charter School Network still threaten to walk out of the classroom as early as Wednesday if a contract deal is not reached by Tuesday night.
“Nobody ever wants to strike, but we need management to have a sense of urgency and to understand that it’s so very important to our kids to have a quality education,” said Erica Stewart, a fifth-grade teacher at Sandra Cisneros School in Brighton Park.
Stewart was one of dozens of teachers picketing outside Uno management offices Thursday. Of 125 publicly funded, privately run charter schools in Chicago, 15 fall within the Uno network. Amid ongoing contract negotiations with management, United Educators at Uno members say they want a cap on class sizes and raises for support staff. For example, management wants larger class sizes above the current 32-student cap, according to Stewart, who says that’s “already a lot of students to keep up with.”
“It is unfair to put our parents and students through this considering that teachers received generous raises just two months ago,” network officials said in a statement.
Much like in the CTU battle with Chicago Public Schools, the charter school union also wants to keep their “pension pickup.” In Illinois, employees are required to put 9 percent of their annual salary toward their pension. At the Uno network, management currently contributes 7 percent but wants to reduce it to 4 percent.
Though both contract battles are similar, the tentative CTU contract calls for a limit in “net growth” of charter schools: That means Chicago can’t build any new charter schools unless one closes. According to the UEU, charter teachers work longer days and have a longer school year, but that doesn’t necessarily make the two school systems rivals.
“Charter teachers have more in common than they do with regular CPS teachers,” said Robert Bloch, a lawyer representing the union. “They really face the same issues.”
The charter union is also upset about 29 staff layoffs, which included technology instructors and graduate support staff that helps students navigate the process to get into selective enrollment high schools and college.
“When they took away graduate support, they took away a huge portion of our staff that are Latino, that speak Spanish, that were going out and helping recruit more students for our schools,” Stewart said. “Obviously we don’t want overcrowding, but we do want to have students in our schools and some of those classes [where] we still have room.”
One of the criticisms the charter school union has leveled against Uno management is the downtown offices are outside the neighborhoods they serve.
“We love our kids, we love our jobs, we love our neighborhoods, but they think they’re too good to be in those neighborhoods where we work every day,” Stewart said.
Uno officials have offered to extend the previous contract and have a federal mediator help hammer out negotiations, according to the statement from Uno officials.
Daisy Marquina, a parent of first- and fifth-graders at Sandra Cisneros School in Brighton Park, said network officials weren’t open with parents about changes to their schools.
“The kids, they came in, and some of the teachers weren’t there anymore,” Marquina said. “That’s the way we found out that we were missing more teachers.”
Marquina said a strike would be hard for parents who don’t have the resources for outside support, since the network won’t be providing contingency sites for the roughly 8,000 students in the charter network. But she said she still supports the teachers if they walk out.