More Chicago Charter School Teachers Aspire to a Union

Teachers at four charter schools on Chicago’s northwest side went public last week with their organizing campaign, marching into their buildings to present principals with cards. The schools, run by ASPIRA Inc., are the latest campaign by the fledgling charter organizing project called the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff—a collaboration of the Teachers (AFT) union, its Illinois affiliate, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Two-thirds of the 100 teachers on four campuses—one middle school and three high schools—filed the cards with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. Recent changes to state law allow charter teachers to organize using card check. In the same piece of legislation, lawmakers expanded the cap on charter schools to curry favor with native son Arne Duncan, now the Education Secretary, whose federal Race to the Top contest will dole out stimulus dollars to states that allow more of the publicly funded, independently run charters. Illinois is pushing hard for the money, and is in the running for the first set of grants.

The law focused charter expansion in Chicago along a model developed by its schools’ former “CEO” Duncan. Vowing to close or convert eight schools after targeting nearly two dozen last year, the city has opened the door to charters as part of its 2004 plan to open "100 new schools" by this year. But the PR sheen of these "labs of innovation" has begun to fade as charter attempts (with more "flexible," non-union teachers) to improve education—and raise test scores—has returned unconvincing results.

Teachers at Chicago International Charter Schools—the largest charter operator in the city—unionized and signed their first contract in late 2009 after teachers got fed up with a lack of supplies, a lack of job security, and a mandate to fill class time with standardized test prep. The organizing drive stretched out for months as the school’s board of directors, which includes a union-busting lawyer, insisted it had contracted operations to a private entity and was therefore not subject to the 2009 card check law. They tried to flip teacher organizers against the union and eventually pushed for an NLRB election, which the union won anyway.

Organizers say there are no such legal complications at Aspira, which operates all four schools. Teachers gave schools CEO Jose Rodriguez the weekend to think over the union effort. City and state lawmakers called Rodriguez to support teachers and encourage him not to challenge the drive. On Tuesday, teachers supported the union at an emergency meeting of Aspira’s board.

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An organizer on the campaign says teachers want more transparency from administrators on the school's spending and on teacher evaluation procedures. He says the drive aims to create a more collaborative school environment, not an “us versus them” dynamic.

Although Aspira—founded by a community group with decades-old roots in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community—is not exactly an investment-fund outfit, it’s had its fair share of controversy in recent years. In 2008, teachers and parents spoke out against a variety of scandals: a former principal was accused of changing grades, approving strip searches on students, and firing whistleblower teachers.

According to Chicago-based Substance News, parents at Aspira’s Mirta Ramirez High formed a parent-teacher organization in 2007 to pressure Rodriguez after four years of sending their kids to a "temporary" school location that was not up to code. The school finally moved into an existing elementary school.

With a clear majority of cards on the table, teachers anticipate victory at the labor board, but Aspira could still try to challenge the drive. Whichever route the school CEO takes, he’ll have to take into account a corps of mobilized teachers.