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Ending First Charter School Strike in U.S., Teachers Celebrate Tentative Contract Agreement

More than 500 teachers and support staff will return to 15 Acero campuses across the city Monday after walking off the job and missing four days of school last week.

By Elyssa Cherney

Hundreds of elated Acero charter school educators decked out in union red cheered, chanted and danced at a Sunday afternoon rally to celebrate their historic victory: a tentative contract agreement with management that ended the nation's first charter school strike.

More than 500 teachers and support staff will return to 15 Acero campuses across the city Monday after walking off the job and missing four days of school last week. The workers will vote in the coming weeks to approve the contract, which promises better pay and hours for teachers as well as smaller class sizes and sanctuary school protections for the majority Latino student body.

"Today, our students and our families have won -- bottom line," Andy Crooks, an Acero staffer and one of the bargaining unit's lead negotiators, told a jubilant crowd that filed into the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters Sunday.

The tentative agreement was reached about 5 a.m. Sunday after nearly a week of staff picketing. Acero management has also dropped a complaint it filed against the union with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, a spokeswoman said.

In a statement Sunday, Acero School CEO Richard Rodriguez thanked students and parents for their patience during a difficult week of negotiations.

"Thanks to hard work and very long hours from both bargaining teams, we were able to reach an agreement that values teachers and staff for the important work they do, while still maintaining the attributes of our network that help produce strong education outcomes for our students," the statement said.

For the union, the victory seemed to extend beyond Chicago, acting as a warning to all charter school operators. The strike garnered national headlines and came at a time when the movement in Chicago seems to stalling. At last week's Chicago Board of Education meeting, members voted to close two non-Acero charter schools at the end of the school year and deny three pending applications to open new elementary and high school charter campuses.

"What we've learned is that ... working in a charter school poses some particular problems. Our employers have business interests, and sometimes those are in conflict with our students' interests," said Chris Baehrend, the CTU charter division chair. "We are going to push back and change the charter school industry so they stop exploiting our students, and we are going to defend public education, and our students are going to have better lives."

CTU represents Acero and other city charters, which are funded with public money, following changes to the labor group's constitution and bylaws in January. Acero charter schools, the rebranded name of a 15-school network previously known as the UNO Charter School Network, narrowly avoided a strike in 2016.

Sunday's rally also drew droves of Acero parents, labor activists and politicians, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the Chicago mayoral candidate who just won an endorsement from the CTU.

Preckwinkle, a former high school teacher, reiterated her plan to put a freeze on charter school expansion if she wins the election, a position met by a stream of applause.

"Let's be clear. This strike was a testimony to the failed policies of Rahm Emanuel and Acero's management," she said.

Not everyone, however, was cheering the outcome.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools criticized the involvement of CTU, which it said has its own political interests and motives.

"While the CTU attempts to stifle charter growth and limit innovation and flexibility in the classroom, INCS will continue working to preserve these values and partner with charter public schools to enable students to succeed in the classroom and in life," spokeswoman Melissa Ramirez Cooper said in a statement.

But teacher Brad Staples, a bargaining committee member, said the contract will improve learning conditions for students.

"It's going to keep good teachers in our network and attract good teachers to our network," he said. "All in all, its a huge win. I'm very happy with it. ... We've been just working crazy long hours to get this done this week and make sure we can get our teachers back in the classroom as quickly as possible to do what's best for our kids."

(c)2018 the Chicago Tribune

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