A new challenge by Chicago charter teachers

February 5, 2019

Nate Goldbaum, a teacher and member of the Chicago Teachers Union, explains what’s on the line for teachers who have gone on strike at three charter schools.

THE SECOND charter school strike in Chicago history and only the third in the entire country begins February 5 when 140 teachers and paraprofessional staff prepare for picket lines at four of the 14 schools run by Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS).

While the staff numbers at these four unionized CICS campuses are relatively small compared to Chicago Public Schools’ 25,000 educators, the stakes in this conflict are high. Not only are teachers fighting for better staffing, smaller classes and equal pay, but this is the first teachers’ strike in recent memory where management has threatened to run the schools with strikebreakers.

The issues at CICS will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the #RedForEd national wave of protests that began last year in West Virginia and spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona — and then made the leap this school year to blue states, culminating most recently in a major victory in Los Angeles.

Teachers and students rally at Chicago International Charter Schools
Teachers and students rally at Chicago International Charter Schools (Chicago Teachers Union | Facebook)

Like elsewhere, the discontent at CICS’s Wrightwood, Ralph Ellison, Chicago Quest and Northtown campuses is driven by overcrowded classrooms, lack of support services for students, and low pay that forces many teachers to work second and third gigs to make ends meet.

This will be the second charter school strike this school year. Teachers in the Acero Schools network — who are also members of the Chicago Teachers Union-Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (CTU-ACTS) — struck and won a major victory late last year. More recently, teachers at LA’s Accelerated Schools struck alongside their public school counterparts and also won their key demands.

CICS will be a tough opponent. Its vehement anti-union stance, use of corporate shell companies and threat to hire substitute teachers to scab on the strike have infuriated teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians, including counselors and social workers, at these schools.

Educators were especially outraged when management made a naked play to try and pit teachers against students and staff by offering the teachers nearly acceptable raises, but in exchange for dropping demands for paraprofessional pay (some of whom barely make $30,000 per year) and accepting cuts in staffing of counselors, social workers and other clinicians for critical programs.

Insultingly, the network also demanded that teachers give up paid parental leave provisions. In a public statement last Friday, the union teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals answered with a united, unequivocal “No!”

AS CTU-ACTS noted in a statement, the CICS has the money — and then some — to pay its educators and staff, and provide for its students.

The CICS network has received some $36 million in public money that is now in “reserves,” including $19 million that is “invested” with CW Henderson — a company founded by Craig Henderson, the one-time president and treasurer of CICS’s Chicago Charter School Foundation.

Henderson and other charter operators have viewed privatization of education as an opportunity to make big bucks for years. As he boasted to Crain’s Chicago Business three years ago, “the municipal bond market is clamoring for more charter school bonds.”

And CICS administrators are obscenely overpaid. As the CTU-ACTS pointed out, CICS’s current CEO Elizabeth Shaw earns more than $230,000 annually to run just 14 schools (only four are unionized and slated to strike) — nearly as much as Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, who oversees more than 500.

As CTU-ACTS noted in a statement:

CICS’s for-profit charter management organizations, or CMOs, continue to claim they have no funds to provide for more classroom resources or living wages for workers — because CICS has those funds, not the CMOs. Some paraprofessionals earn barely $30,000 per year, and “raises” for some teachers in the last two years topped out at 3.75 percent — below the inflation rate — with some frontline staff seeing even lower — or no — raises. Frontline workers receive no annual cost of living increase.

The statement quoted CTU President Jesse Sharkey saying:

This is naked management greed and insider dealing — and it comes at the expense of our overwhelmingly Black and low-income students at CICS schools. CICS, like other charter operators, has created a series of management front companies and duplicative bureaucracies that literally suck dollars out of classrooms to enrich management. That’s wrong — and if we have to strike to force management to put those dollars back into the classroom, we will.

Charter schools have sucked increasingly large amounts of money from public schools in pursuit of profit — and management has been the beneficiaries of increasing amounts of that public money.

According to the union, “CPS funding to CICS increased from $82 million in 2017 to $93 million in 2018, an increase of 13 percent. The schools’ total revenue increased 9 percent in 2018. But across the whole organization, spending on program services increased a paltry 3 percent in that same period, while spending in the ‘management and general’ category increased by 31 percent.”

The numbers are even worse at the four unionized CICS schools, where, CTU-ACTS notes, “across the four CTU-organized schools, management fees are taking an additional $2 million out of the classrooms — a 44 percent increase since 2017 alone.”

In other words, the money that’s supposed to go toward educating kids has largely gone to management, not to teachers or to students. As Chicago teachers noted when they struck in 2012 — and in the most recent strike at the Acero Schools network — teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

“Those are vital public dollars that our students desperately need,” teacher Jen Conant, who heads up the bargaining effort for three of the schools, said in a statement. “To see management divert even more of those dollars to their personal profit is a terrible breach of trust with our students and families.”

AS ONE of the first charter school networks in Chicago, CICS is a particularly ideological, anti-union network. Unlike unified charter networks, CICS acts like its own school district in miniature — projecting the kind of “portfolio” model that privatizers are pushing for large districts, like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles.

Using this model, CICS farms oversight of the schools to “school management organizations,” like Civitas, which runs the four schools where educators are fighting for their contract.

In all, CICS has put $36 million in public funds into its “reserves” — including the nearly $20 million that it invests with a company owned by CICS cofounder Henderson. According to the union, some 30 percent of the public money CICS receives goes to management rather than the classroom, with 14 of the network’s upper management currently receiving six-figure salaries.

CICS financial audits reportedly show that using less than 10 percent of the network’s reserves could “save the jobs of counselors and social workers, cut class sizes and end high staff turn-over and the disruption that causes for students’ lives by providing educators with equal pay for equal work with CPS-run schools,” according to the union.

Several of those in CICS upper management have a history of attacking public education. This includes founder and board member of CICS, David Chizewer, who also helped found the Illinois Network of Charter Schools — the attack dog of the charter industry. He also leads the Education Industry Practice section of his corporate law firm, Goldberg Kohn.

Current CICS CEO Elizabeth Shaw came from the Teach for America program, which has worked to staff the corporate education reform movement with Ivy League graduates, disparaging teachers who were already serving low-income students of color in major cities.

Also on the CICS Board of Directors is Violet Clark — a partner at the employment law firm Laner Muchin, which exclusively represents bosses and offers services like “union avoidance.”

Given this rogue’s gallery of leaders, it’s not surprising that CICS management has taken steps that include commissioning a private “substitute teachers staffing” company to try and sign up scab teachers to keep CICS schools operating in the event of a strike.

Having merged with the 25,000-strong Chicago Teachers Union last year, educators at the four unionized CICS schools have backing from their union sisters and brothers.

It will take solidarity from them, from parents and students at the schools and other supporters to win. But as they rallied outside CICS Northtown early on the morning of February 4, passing out fliers asking families to stay home in the event of a strike, it was clear that educators there were confident they have the support of the families of the students they teach.

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