Lawmakers target charter schools as Acero strike heads closer to settlement

Progress is being made toward resolving the nation’s first-ever charter school strike, officials said, but the two sides are not there yet.

As the nation’s first charter-school strike continued for a third day, hundreds of Chicago Teachers Union members chanted and blew whistles at the headquarters of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, 150 N. Michigan Ave., Thursday afternoon demanding better working conditions at Acero Charter Schools.

But Jesse Sharkey, CTU president, said talks have improved between CTU members and Acero’s management. He said negotiations over reducing class sizes have moved forward as well as making sure Acero campuses are sanctuary schools, though the side are still debating over the final language of the contract.

One key issue the two sides continue to wrestle over is wage increases for the 550 staff members, particularly paraprofessionals.

“We have seen a ‘pay schedule’ for paraprofessionals but it’s not adequate yet, it is not what we are demanding and we know Acero can afford it,” said teacher Martha Baumgarten, a member of the negotiating committee. “We are asking for people to be compensated for having master’s degrees or a certain amount of hours above their master’s degree and we are having a lot of trouble coming to an agreement on those issues but we are going to stand strong because we really believe our members deserve to be compensated for their education.”

Acero officials declined to comment Thursday afternoon.

Three state representative also joined CTU members at the picket lines to announce new bills in the Illinois house that would more closely regulate charter operators.

“What House Bill 5999 says is that any school districts that are in financial struggles ought not to open any new charter schools because they need to invest their funding in the schools they have before opening new, privately operated schools that are going to drain the resources that they don’t even have,” state Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago.) said. “Let’s take care of the schools that we have first, let’s guarantee decent, basic, quality education in every neighborhood for every child and then we can go spending money on extras.”

Teachers strike for the third day in front of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools headquarters. | Manny Ramos/ Sun-Times

State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch (D-Westchester) said his bill would prevent new for-profit charter schools from opening. It would also place restrictions on the salary of charter executives and regulate how charter schools spend its money.

“I filed a bill in Springfield that will create local school councils for every charter school in Chicago,” state Rep. Robert Martwick (D-Chicago) said. “This charter school has been able to do things with their money without any input from the citizens of the city of Chicago … they are skimming money that should be dedicated to the classroom.”

In the Chicago Public Schools system, local school councils approve school spending, annual improvement plans and hire and fire principals. The elected councils are made up of parents, community members, teachers and staff. This type of oversight is necessary for charter schools, Martwick said.

Martwick also plans to file a bill requiring the larger charter networks that run schools in the city to have an elected school board.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools said previous efforts to regulate charter schools have been rejected.

“In the past, the CTU has attempted to push legislation in Springfield that would make it difficult for charter schools to implement its comprehensive educational programming. These efforts have failed,” a spokesperson for Illinois Network of Charter Schools said in a statement.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

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