Inside the Nation’s First Charter School Strike: ‘30k Is Not a Livable Wage in Chicago’

Educators from the Acero charter-school network protest outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters on December 5, 2018. Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

“I have 32 fifth-graders in my classroom, and that’s just not the optimal amount of people to be teaching at once,” said Martha Baumgarten, who teaches social studies and English language learners at the Acero charter network’s Carlos Fuentes Elementary School. “It’s a lot,” she emphasized. “Thirty-two different academic levels is a lot. Thirty-two different levels of English proficiency is a lot. It’s just too much to be able to serve my students as well as I could.”

On Tuesday morning, Baumgarten joined the nation’s first formal strike against a charter-school operator. Complaining of low wages, overcrowded classes, and insufficient support services for bilingual and special education students, roughly 550 unionized educators employed by the Acero Schools charter network are walking picket lines after management failed to re-negotiate their contract with the Chicago Teachers Union by the December 4 deadline. Contract negotiations with Acero — which is one of Chicago’s largest charter-school networks, serving more than 7,000 students — have been underway for six months. Baumgarten sits on the bargaining committee of United Educators for Justice (UEJ), which represents Acero educators within CTU, and she voted to approve a strike.

So did Andy Crooks, UEJ president and a special education paraprofessional, or trained teacher’s aide, for Acero schools. Crooks told New York that paraprofessionals start with base pay of $32,100. Seven percent of that sum is allocated for pensions, which leaves paraprofessionals with an actual base salary of under $30,000. Crooks himself makes slightly more, due partly to seniority, but he added, “$30,000 is not a livable wage in the city of Chicago.” As the New York Times reported, Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez makes around $260,000 per year to manage a network of 15 schools — a figure roughly equal to the salary earned by Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice K. Jackson, who is responsible for over 500 schools.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, the CTU cited low pay for paraprofessional staff as a principal sticking point in its negotiations with Acero, saying the charter operator’s management refused “to provide a penny more in compensation to paraprofessionals, their lowest-wage workers.” They aren’t the only Acero workers being paid less than they’re due, according to CTU: Acero teachers earn, on average, $13,000 less than their peers in Chicago’s traditional public schools while also working around 20 percent more hours, the union says.

CTU said that a financial audit Acero provided to the union revealed that it pays $1 million less in salary costs than it did in 2017, and currently possesses unrestricted cash resources of $24 million. The Acero charter network disputed the union’s characterization of its position on paraprofessional raises and increased special-education services and staffing; a spokeswoman said the network is still “working through what those final numbers will be” as part of its negotiations.

Acero attributes its fiscal situation to Chicago Public Schools releasing a budget at the end of fiscal year 2017 that would have cut funding for charters. However, the final budget ended up allocating more funding for charters, and that, combined with Acero’s internal spending cuts, left the charter network with a financial surplus of $24 million. “Acero created 40 new union positions and 17 school support positions after CPS increased funding,” said Acero’s spokesperson. Nevertheless, the union says Acero rejected its demands to increase educators’ pay, reduce class sizes, extend school lunch time to 40 minutes, and increase the availability of special-education services.

Nor would the charter operator commit to a more formal implementation of sanctuary-school policies, another key union demand. Those policies, which are in place in school districts like Los Angeles and Miami, block immigration agents from entering school property without a warrant and protect student data from immigration authorities unless those authorities have a court order. Acero, which serves a predominately Latinx student population, asserts that its sanctuary-school policy was outlined in a letter to parents last year, and does not need to be included in a labor contract.

But Crooks says the union has good reason to demand a more formal sanctuary-school policy. “Their policies, they can change on a whim for any reason or no reason whatsoever,” he said. “What we’re seeking to do is enshrine that policy because it’s important to our members and it’s important to our families. And if it’s important, then we want it in our contract so that they can’t just change their mind. The administration turns over so frequently that who knows who’s coming in next and who knows that their views are going to be.”

As Wednesday afternoon progressed, the strike appeared set to continue into Thursday — a powerful show of force from CTU, which merged with ChiACTS, the city’s nine-year-old charter-school union, in January.

The Acero strike isn’t just notable for its historical implications. On the political front, Tuesday’s action pits one of the nation’s most proactive teachers’ unions against a charter network with long-standing ties to city leadership. Chicago’s outgoing Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, expanded charter schools while shuttering dozens of traditional public schools in low-income neighborhoods, a policy that spurred protests from unionized educators and parents alike. The future of Chicago’s charter schools was set to be a key issue in the February 26 mayoral election even before Acero educators walked the picket line.

Some critics argue that the charter network has diverged from roots in social-justice activism. Acero is a relatively recent moniker: The charter operator used to be known as the United Neighborhood Organization Charter Schools Network. As the name implies, UNO charters were affiliated with the United Neighborhood Organization, a grassroots group that originally organized Chicago’s Latinx population around the issues of affordable housing and improved social services. UNO founded its first school in 1997 and by 2014, managed 15 charter schools, thanks in part to the organization’s ties to politicians like Emanuel and former Chicago mayor Richard Daley.

Byron Sigcho Lopez, formerly the executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, another grassroots social-justice organization, told New York that UNO saw an opportunity to grow itself as a political organization as the number of Latinx students in Chicago public schools increased.

“It’s interesting how their view and their vision of education, I think from the very beginning, fit into this very market-oriented, corporate-driven agenda of education,” said Sigcho, who is running as an independent for alderman of the city’s 25th Ward, with the endorsement of the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. “I think as they grew, they lost their vision and the mission, and went from serving immigrant families and from addressing housing needs, citizenship services, and education services for adults. All of a sudden they became this large charter network that was more interested in politics and in contracts.”

Acero and the United Neighborhood Organization have been separate entities since August 2014 (though confusingly, the charter network still bore the name UNO Charter Schools until 2017). The divorce and Acero’s subsequent rebranding followed scandal and controversy. UNO’s CEO, Juan Rangel, resigned in December 2013 amid a federal probe into UNO’s contracting practices. In June 2014, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission concluded that the network had defrauded investors. According to Reuters, UNO “contracted with two companies owned by its chief operating officer’s brothers, with one company installing windows for $11 million and the other acting as an owner’s representative during construction.” Rangel settled with the SEC in 2016. The same year, UNO schools narrowly avoided a strike over low teacher-pay and large class sizes. UNO Charter Schools officially rebranded as Acero in 2017; the word means “steel” in Spanish, and most of the network’s schools now bear the name of prominent Latinx writers and activists.

Like charter schools across the country, Acero promotes the idea that its autonomy and pedagogical flexibility compared to privately operated public schools make it a competitive or even superior alternative; Acero boasts of its “focus on innovation” and a “strong foundation that has been built over nearly two decades.” However, the substance of CTU’s demands, with their emphasis on fair wages and sanctuary-school policies, counters that message; they suggest, instead, that Acero may have fallen short of its goals.

In November, not long after Acero educators voted to authorize a strike, Derick Loafmann, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at Acero’s PFC Omar E. Torres Elementary School, spoke to New York about his experiences working for three iterations of the charter network. He recalled that after the switch from UNO Charter Schools to Acero, officials spent a lot of money switching over signage, going as far as “ripping out the the center of the soccer field that said ‘UCSN’ to replace it with nothing.”

“Honestly, I feel like that money would have been much better spent improving the quality of the education,” Loafmann said. “It feels a lot like the rebranding and the way Acero has spent money has been basically a paint job over infrastructure that could use more support.” Loafmann added that he often has to pay for classroom tools out of his own pocket; as volunteer boys’ basketball coach, he provides supplies like glasses straps and bottled water. “You don’t get a stipend [for coaching] at the middle school level,” he said. “So it’s just, ‘Can you make this work?’”

Other educators — and parents — questioned the network’s priorities and pedagogical choices. Amarily Falcon, who has two children in Acero elementary schools, credited the charter network’s educators for identifying and accommodating her first-grade student’s need for special-education services, but worried that educators are overwhelmed by large class sizes and insufficient resources. “I have seen that particularly in my son’s first grade, the special-education teacher really has no help,” she said, adding that she hopes more classroom assistance is part of the eventual deal. Falcon recounted volunteering for a classroom event where a first-grade teacher was responsible for 31 students. It “was intense to watch,” she said. “I wanted to leave that room.”

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers advocate for small class sizes, and experts agree that small classes are beneficial to student learning, especially in the lower grades. Chicago Public Schools sets the maximum class size for first- through eighth-grade classrooms at 28 students, though this is not a legal standard, and a number of city’s traditional and charter public schools are overcrowded.

An Acero spokesperson confirmed that the charter operator’s average class size is 32 students, but added a qualification: “Even though it’s 32, we do have a 17-to-1 when you account for wraparound services we have like bilingual teachers and special-education teachers.” The fact remains, however, that Acero’s class sizes are higher than the city’s established standard, and it did not agree to a reduced class-size cap at the bargaining table. According to Crooks, who was present during negotiations, the charter operator cited financial reasons for refusing to do so.

Acero teachers noted another discrepancy with policies at Chicago Public Schools: their school day and academic year are longer, which they say depletes students and teachers alike. “The lunches are shorter at our school,” said Emma Tarkowski, a kindergarten teacher at Acero’s Officer Donald J. Marquez Elementary School. “The recesses are shorter at our school and the teacher prep is shorter at our school. So we’re working more and we’re not given as much time as CPS teachers.”

Tarkowski, who also voted to strike, said the long day is a real strain for her young students. “The students start arriving at 7:30 if they want school breakfast. Then they’re in my classroom at 7:45. And that is such an early start for 4 and 5 year olds,” she said. “They come in and they’re tired. It takes a very long time to wake up. Then we go all the way until 3:30 pm. They get a 15-minute recess and a 25-minute lunch and they don’t have any other opportunities to play. It’s not really developmentally appropriate for 5 year olds to work as hard as they’re working all day long without enough breaks.”

In its statement on the strike, the charter operator notes the network’s high academic performance. It is true that Acero’s schools, on average, do not appear to underperform most traditional public schools in the city, at least according to one official metric. All but one of the charter operator’s schools received a Commendable rating from the state in 2018, the second-highest designation available. (None of Chicago’s charter schools received the state’s highest rating, for exemplary performance.)

Acero’s statement goes on to suggest that the strike is merely the result of outside interests “using our students and our schools as a means to advance their national anti-charter school platform,” adding that these forces “don’t want our schools to succeed because it doesn’t serve their agenda.”

But on the picket line, Acero educators and their allies reject that narrative. “It’s unfortunate what Acero let happen, but we support the union and our teachers,” said Falcon, adding, “As parents, we have to remember the lifelong impact that educators have on our kids and their learning. I demand the best for my sons, Acero students, and all teachers.” Loafmann said that he believes Acero has the means to meet the union’s demands. Citing the results of Acero’s audit, he argued, “They can afford what we’re seeking. They can afford more special education and more bilingual teachers. They can afford to bring back programs they cut in the past. They can afford reduced class-sizes (they’re already underenrolled). They can afford to increase compensation to keep educators in the schools.”

Crooks said that while the rank-and-file walks the picket line, the union’s bargaining committee will continue to try to reach an agreement with Acero. “Being the first charter school [to strike],  we are in slightly uncharted territory. No pun intended,” he said. “I would expect that Acero might feel a little bit more urgency at this point.”

Acero might not be the only charter operator feeling pressure. Members of CTU’s bargaining unit for Chicago International Charter Schools have also voted to authorize a strike if contract negotiations fail, though they have not yet set a strike date. After West Virginia teachers set an example for frustrated public educators in February — leading to a wave of walkouts in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado — charter operators across the country are likely paying very close attention to the situation in Chicago.

Inside the Acero Teacher Strike, a First for Charter Schools