Chicago Teachers Take To The Streets In The Nation's First Charter School Strike

by Vanessa Taylor

Teachers are often regarded as one of society's unsung heroes, and for good reason. They spend their lives working with children and, when you have a good teacher, that leaves a long-lasting impact. Teachers deserve support and adequate funding but, oftentimes, don't have it. Now, teachers in Chicago are striking for the first time against the charter school system. This moment marks the first-ever charter school strike in the nation, as reported by Chicago's WGN TV. As you see news about the strike, you may be wondering what exactly a charter school is and why this strike is so significant.

Over 500 teachers in Chicago began their strike on Tuesday morning, leading to the closure of 15 schools across the Acero Schools network, as reported by The New York Times and Chicago Tribune. The schools used to be known as UNO charter schools, according to WGN TV. As The New York Times reported, teachers are rallying for higher pay, smaller class sizes, more funds for special education services, among other demands.

The system's teachers are represented by the Chicago Teachers Union, according to the Chicago Tribune. Although teachers say the charter system's management is not providing them with enough resources, WGN TV reported that the school leaders say union leaders are "anti-charter".

"A historic first as charter school teachers begin strike in Chicago. It has been an unprecedented year for teacher activism across the nation. The main issue? How public dollars are spent," one reporter wrote on Twitter.

But, what's the difference between a charter school and other public education that makes this strike so unique?

A charter school is essentially a tuition-free school of choice that's publicly funded but independently run by outside agencies, as outlined by Education Week. These schools were created over 25 years ago in Minnesota, according to Education Week, as a way to free educators to be more creative and "loosen red tape" surrounding public schools — they were meant to be an answer to public school failings and shortfalls.

Since then, federal data has reported that 43 states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school legislation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which states that charters now include nearly 7,000 schools and 3 million students across the country.

Charter schools get their name because, in exchange for exemptions from many state laws governing traditional public schools, Education Weekly and In Perspective explained that they are bound to a contract, or "charter". A school's charter lays out a school's mission, academic goals, fiscal guidelines, and accountability requirements.

Charter schools have faced their share of critiques. In 2014, for instance, The Washington Post reported that only one in six of Pennsylvania's charter schools were "high performing," and none of the state's online charters were regarded as such.

In November 2017, after releasing "Charters and Consequences" — a 48 page report that is the result of investigations, visits, and interviews spanning a year — the Network for Public Education said in a statement, "We have concluded that this unregulated, taxpayer-funded business model of education is a fiscal and educational disaster."

As In Perspective explained, "Critics have often argued that charter schools do not sufficiently account for the public money they receive, produce insufficient student performance data and are a threat to traditional public schools."

But in Chicago, teachers have joined together to protest budget cuts and other failures within the system.

Martha Baumgarten, a fifth grade teacher at Carlos Fuentes Elementary school within the Acero Network, told The New York Times: “Everyone is feeding off each other and hearing this rallying cry. A lot of this comes down to lack of funding. But teachers across the country are seeing each other stand up and say that’s not O.K. We’re not going to support budgets and politics as usual.”

In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union claimed that "management has been denying resources from its schools" and ended 2018 spending $1 million less in staff salary costs than in 2017. Acero educators reportedly earn up to $13,000 less than their counterparts at traditional schools, and can't afford to live comfortably in the city, the Chicago Teachers Union told The New York Times.

In its statement, the Chicago Teacher's Union is demanding the following:

...smaller class sizes, increased special education funding, more autonomy over curriculum and grading, equal pay for equal work, additional resources for classrooms and students, sanctuary schools for their overwhelmingly Latinx student population, and better compensation and treatment of paraprofessionals.

The strike of charter teachers may be new, but teachers have continuously pushed for a better education system. Also on Tuesday, in Geneva, Illinois, teachers have also gone on strike, according to the Kane Country Chronicle.

Schools are fundamentally important, and teachers need to have the resources and support to provide students with the education they deserve. In Chicago, teachers are hoping that this strike will give them just that.