Days after hundreds of Chicago-area teachers became the first charter school educators in the country to go on strike, they reached a tentative deal on Sunday that addresses their concerns with low pay, large class sizes, and protections for the largely Latinx student body.
The deal with Acero charter school management, which is expected to pass when teachers vote on it on Monday, sends a message to privately-run school operators across the country that educators can unionize to get what they want. Only about 11 percent of the charter schools in the United States are currently unionized.
Acero is one of the largest charter school networks in Chicago, with more than 7,000 students — more than 90 percent of whom are Latinx.
More than 500 Acero teachers went on strike last week, demanding pay raises, more bilingual teachers, improved special education resources, reductions in the 32-student class size, and sanctuary schools, or a safe zone for undocumented immigrants who may be a risk for deportation.
The tentative deal reached early Sunday morning forbids Acero, which is funded with public money, from sharing information about the immigration status of students, families, and teachers with law enforcement. It limits the ability of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to access the schools, unless the agency has a court order to do so. The agreement also increases teacher and staff salaries over the next four years, reduces work days, and lowers class sizes.
Teachers gathered at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters on Sunday cheered when the deal was announced.
“Today, our students and our families have won — bottom line,” said Acero staffer and bargaining unit negotiator Andy Crooks, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The win had initially seemed unlikely, as Acero Schools CEO Richard L. Rodriguez disparaged the strike last week, accusing teachers of “using our students and our schools as a means to advance their national anti-charter school platform.”
Rodriguez appeared to have experienced a change of heart by Sunday, however — releasing a statement, obtained by the Tribune, in which he thanked the “hard work and very long hours from both bargaining teams,” adding that management and teachers “were able to reach an agreement that values teachers and staff for the important work they do, while still maintaining the attributes of our network that help produce strong education outcomes for our students.”
Activists hope the victory will translate to better working conditions for charter school teachers and staff across the country, if other charter school employees are inspired to make similar unionization pushes.
“Working in a charter school poses some particular problems,” said Chris Baehrend, Chicago Teachers Union’s charter division chairperson, according to the Tribune. “Our employers have business interests, and sometimes those are in conflict with our students’ interests … We are going to push back and change the charter school industry so they stop exploiting our students and we are going to defend public education, and our students are going to have better lives.”
Indeed, as ThinkProgress previously reported, charter schools enjoy significant support from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who in 2017, named increased grant funding to school choice programs and charter schools as the top priority for the department. But such support is essentially granted as a blank check, leaving many charter schools struggling due to little public oversight.
In Illinois, the Education Department found in 2010 that the state “has no system in place for [monitoring charter schools].” According to research by the Center for Popular Democracy and Action Now, by early 2015, Illinois had seen $13.1 million in fraud by charter school officials, with total fraud estimated at more than $27 million in 2014 alone.
Acero, which was formerly known as UNO Charter Schools, was once one of those scandal-ridden schools, charged in 2014 with defrauding investors.