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Chicago charter school teachers move to unionize

by Steven Melendez
April 08, 2010

Teachers at four charter schools operated by Aspira, Inc., voted March 19 to unionize. By mid-June, following official recognition by the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, they will be able to start negotiating a contract. They are the latest Chicago-area schools to move toward unionization after a change in Illinois law making it easier for charter school teachers to organize.

The schools involved are Aspira Haugan Middle School, Aspira Early College High School and Aspira Antonia Pantoja High School, all on the Norhwest Side as well as Aspira Mirta Ramirez Computer Science High School in Logan Square. They have a total of approximately 2,000 students. Antonia Pantoja High School opened in 1984; the other three have operated since 2003.

The majority of the teachers at the four Aspira schools signed union membership cards, said Gail Purkey, spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Thanks to the change in Illinois law, they were able to support unionization by simply filling out cards rather than voting in a secret ballot.

“They have the ability to authorize a union by card check,” Purkey said. “They hope the contract will be a tool in making the school stronger.”

The law enabling charter school teachers to organize via the card-check process was passed in 2009 following the unionization of three charter schools belonging to the Chicago International Charter Schools system. Civitas Schools, which manages the three, maintained that it was a private employer and not subject to Illinois law allowing card-check unionization at public schools. Teachers at those schools were required to vote for the union via secret ballot. The change in Illinois law gives charter teachers the same ability to unionize via card check as public school teachers.

Teachers and students have gained from changes under the union contract, said Brian Harris. He is a special education teacher and a Civitas Federation of Teachers representative at Northtown Academy.

“We have a cap on class sizes at 29 students,” Harris said. “We have due process for termination.” 

Robert Moranto, a professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, said unionization has its pros and cons. It can limit experimentation and teachers’ flexibility, he said.

“You can do a [strictly enforced] 8-to-3 school day with suburban kids, and it works fine,” Moranto said. “You don’t seem to be able to do that with disadvantaged kids. You need the people on the job to be a lot more flexible.”

But teacher unions also can prevent abuse by “tyrannical principals,” he said, and help check corruption and patronage hiring in large cities.

James Thindwa is a civic engagement coordinator at the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which helped with unionizing efforts at the Aspira schools. In his experience, he said, teachers advocate for students in contract negotiations and encourage colleagues to help students in whatever way possible.

“There’s a lot of mythology that floats around here,” Thindwa said. “Nothing prevents a teacher from bending over backwards beyond the call of duty to help a student who needs it.”