Cost of living and average wage at Chicago charters less than AZ, OK, WV—the states that sparked teacher rebellions across the nation—as negotiations with operators stall on issues of classroom resources, working conditions.

Protest/press conference: 5 p.m., Wednesday, October 24
Acero board meeting, Fuentes Elementary, 2845 W Barry Ave., Chicago

CHICAGO—Over a thousand CTU charter educators have been negotiating with their managements for months for new contracts—and those negotiations have increasingly hit a wall as operators dismiss issues related to compensation and classroom resources. Average salaries for teachers at some charters is barely $47,000—less than the average salary for Arizona teachers, who staged massive protests and walkouts against low education funding this year. With Chicago’s cost of living as much as 30% higher than in states like West Virginia and Oklahoma—and with vastly higher housing costs—that puts educators’ wages well below teachers in the nation’s most militant and underfunded #RedForEd states. Paraprofessionals in Chicago charters, who provide critical classroom supports and are overwhelmingly Black and female, earn on average even less.

The CTU is pushing back with a press conference and rally at 5PM on Wednesday, October 24, at the upcoming board meeting of Acero—the largest unionized operator in CPS. Educators will announce dates for strike votes—and have vowed to hit the picket lines, if necessary, in what would be the first strike of a charter operator in the nation’s history.

CTU charter educators are demanding agreements that support smaller class sizes, more support for special education services, better working conditions for teachers and paraprofessionals—including salaries and benefits that end high turnover and support educator stability, the flexibility to revise packaged curricula that are not culturally relevant or age-appropriate, and trauma services and wrap-around supports for their overwhelmingly low-income non-white students. Those demands dovetail with CTU support for a hard statewide cap on charters, an end to for-profit education management organizations or EMOs, local school councils for charter parents, and direct service minimums with a fixed percentage of public funding dedicated to classrooms.

The gridlock at Acero—formerly UNO—is particularly galling. Acero’s CEO earns a quarter of a million dollars a year to manage a system of about 8,000 students—as much as Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked CEO earns to manage a district of 370,000 students. The operator has jacked up management fees and expanded top administrative positions in what CTU members describe as naked bloat—while robbing students of those resources in classrooms. In the last ten years, Emanuel’s hand-picked school board has forked over hundreds of millions of tax dollars to the privately run charter network, on top of millions more in state funding for UNO/Acero school construction.

A huge percentage of public dollars at some operators simply never makes it into the classroom. For-profit Civitas pays a 16% management to its parent CICS, with whom it shares top executives, while Civitas management itself collects up to an additional 12% in public funds for its own management ‘costs’. At one meeting, a charter executive dismissed educators’ concerns that inflated management fees were robbing students by citing CICS general ‘belief’ that “you can do more with less”.

CPS charters get an additional $688 per student over the flat fee that district schools receive to educate students under Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s student-based budgeting formula. While operators have funneled those precious public dollars into management fees and higher salaries for top executives at the expense of classroom supports, some charter educators are payed vastly less than CPS district workers, with some earning barely $40,000/year. That wage is $7,000 less than the living wage calculation for an adult with one child in the metro area, putting raising a family or buying a home out of the reach of thousands of charter educators. Charter paraprofessionals overall earn even less.

“Mayor Emanuel and his charter operator cronies have failed for eight years to support our students and our families in our classrooms and school communities,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “Our union charter workers are fighting for the schools our students deserve—and we will strike if necessary for educational equity for our students and the educators who serve them.”

Funding for CPS charter operators has grown from $620 million/year to upwards of $700 million/year just since 2016. Yet schools typically have too few—and too underpaid—teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff, while management overspends on overhead, from high CMO fees to redundant office administration and costly ‘executive’ management. At Instituto, for example, which runs two union charters, 20% of all expenses—roughly $4 million—are classified as ‘management’ dollars denied to classrooms. At Civitas, which serves about 2,000 students at four unionized CICS schools, the management unit spends conservatively $1.36 million on its executive team alone—nearly the same amount Civitas spends on special education across four campuses.

“Educators’ teaching conditions are our students’ learning conditions—and teachers and paraprofessionals are woefully underpaid and overworked, with critical staffing shortages and a perilous lack of funding for basic services,” charged Sharkey.