Fifteen charter schools in Chicago are making history with the first major charter school strike in the U.S. Coming after the massive #RedforEd strike movement that swept the country from West Virginia to Arizona earlier this year, the Chicago charter strike is another serious push back against years of slashed education budgets and attacks on public education.
Teachers and other educational staff struck all 15 Acero network charter schools in Chicago beginning December 4, approved with an enthusiastic 98% strike vote. Teachers at four other charter schools in a different chain have voted overwhelmingly to strike as well, though a date is not set. The demands driving charter school teachers to strike – a dire need for more resources in classrooms and fair pay for teachers – underline what education activists have been saying for many years: the neoliberal project of school privatization does not fix the issues at the heart of the education crisis in the U.S.
Charter Schools Fail to Deliver
Despite claims by the political establishment of both parties and billionaire boosters that charter schools could be the answer to the epidemic of failing public schools, a majority of Chicago’s public education funding in addition to private funds doesn’t translate into better education for students in the city’s charter schools. With a significant chunk going straight into the pockets of the administration – Acero’s CEO makes $260,000 a year – charter school teachers are experiencing many of the same burdens placed on public school teachers, but with even less pay on average and often additional requirements, such as bilingual teaching within their classroom.
While things like bilingual education are undoubtedly positive for students, these resources are not available to all. Rather than teaching all students in Chicago, charter administrators can handpick their students, leaving behind many of those who would benefit most from additional resources.
Even those students lucky enough to be accepted into charter schools end up facing many of the same challenges as students in public schools – overcrowded classrooms, insufficient support for students with special needs, excessive teacher turnover and a lack of sensitivity to the experiences of immigrant students have all been cited by charter school teachers as reasons for the strike. Among other things the union’s demands include specific contract language that would prohibit Acero from cooperating in any way with ICE or deportations.
Winning the Strike, Building the Movement
Though charter-boosting politicians attack the public education system in order to justify funding cuts, teachers in both public and charter schools recognize that funding cuts and poor management are the real enemy, not other teachers. What unites public and private school teachers is the readiness to fight for a better conditions for their students. This common purpose was reflected last year when the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS Local 4343) and the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) both voted with strong majorities to merge, citing the additional strength they would have to fight for better use of public education funds in Chicago by joining together.
The current strike builds on a history of militancy in Chicago’s labor movement and and among education unions nationally, particular in recent years. In 2012, the CTU waged a successful strike against neoliberal cuts to public education funding. At the Acero teachers strike vote press conference, they acknowledged that their efforts are also a continuation of the #RedforEd movement started by the historic strike by West Virginia teachers earlier this year. To win their struggle, charter teachers should look to the best lessons of both these struggles. These lessons included going beyond conservative methods of their own union leaders, breaking with existing political alliances, and being very open with the rest of the membership about the exact state of negotiations at any given moment. In Chicago, SEIU 73, which represents non-professional employees who work alongside CTU members at the Board of Education, practice open bargaining in which any union member can sit in on the negotiating sessions. This is also done by other teachers’ union locals, for example in St. Paul, Minnesota and it creates a far deeper trust in the process and between elected officials and the rank and file.
Both the Chicago 2012 and #RedforEd strikes actively worked to build solidarity between striking teachers and broader sections of the public. In Chicago 2012, CTU’s active outreach to their students’ families was crucial to the strike’s success. In West Virginia, teachers linked their fight to the need for better public sector jobs on the whole, attaching their demand for teacher raises to raises across the public sector. Acero teachers have correctly made efforts to connect beyond their schools as well. The week before the strike, CTU set up a solidarity campaign across the union, requesting their members wear red in support of Acero teachers as they fight back. The strike is about better schools for all and winning them will require a united front built between the teachers, parents and the community.
The charter network would rather change its name – as they did last year amid well-publicized corruption – than the way they operate, so we should not expect them to give in to the demands of the strike without mass pressure. The first day on the picket line was energetic and the strike has made national news, but elites understand how a victory for the charter teachers would undermine their attacks on public education. We need to be ready to stand up to the big bullies that will support Acero. Going into the strike, the links with parents were not as strong as those built for the 2012 strike and the full weight of CTU has not yet been brought into this fight. Charter teachers need to be ready to escalate and CTU and SEIU Local 73 should join charter teachers in calling for a mass rally before winter break for better schools for all and victory on the charter teachers’ demands. Both CTU and SEIU are heading toward contract struggles next year and the rally and a charter strike victory would build momentum for those struggles. Teachers, parents, and students should be invited to build the needed pressure.
The union could expand the appeal of the Acero teachers’ movement by bringing in other public-sector workers who are dealing with privatization and budget cutting by the Democratic establishment in Chicago. A mass rally could also be built linking the crisis in education to issues of underfunded social and health services and attacks on the public sector. This could bring many thousands out to defend quality education as a part of a larger vision for a city where working-class residents can thrive.
Quality Education for All Means Breaking With Capitalism
The original impetus for the charter school movement came from progressive educators who sought to break out of the bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all constraints of big city public education systems. This was later co-opted by privateers with a neoliberal agenda of busting unions and replacing the democratic input of parent-teacher groups with a top-down, corporate model in which innovation was to be replaced by standardized testing. Winning better schools and communities for all will also mean bringing charter networks under democratic public ownership and control, but this has to be seen as part and parcel of a movement to bring the existing public school systems under genuinely democratic control, with input from teachers, students, parents and communities. In this way the best methods that have been developed within some charter schools could be re-integrated with the best methods that are being daily developed and fought for within the public system. Every child deserves to receive the best and most creative education possible.
We should not expect the Democrats who run Chicago to fight for these demands. They have consistently helped to implement austerity against public schools and the increasing privatization of the education system. Though Chicago public schools faced attacks under Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, it was Democrat Rahm Emanuel who initiated the largest mass public school closing in U.S. history, following up on years of budget cuts, internal corruption and bureaucratic sabotage by the Daley administration. Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed over 50 schools in 2013, impacting 12,000 students predominantly in black and Latino neighborhoods. As long as Democrats like Rahm continue to fund their campaigns with donations from the same corporations lobbying for lower taxes and cuts to public spending, it will require massive protests and strikes to win real gains for working families. We need a new working-class party that will fight unapologetically for the interests of working people, independent of corporate funding and influence.
We need to fight for concrete improvements here and now, but we should also recognize that the problems facing our struggling schools are a result of the capitalist system that values profit over basic resources for working people. Under capitalism, profit will always come before the educational needs of our youth or the quality of life of our teachers and other public servants. We need a socialist system that will empower youth and adults through education, and provide a living wage and comfortable conditions for all people.
Socialist Alternative stands in solidarity with charter schools teachers in Chicago and with striking teachers throughout the nation fighting to defend quality education for all youth.