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Why Chicago Charter Teachers Like Me Are Ready to Strike

Charter schools are used to undercut public school teachers’ wages. Case in point: teachers at Passages Charter School in Chicago make 25 percent less than their public counterparts. A Passages teacher explains why he is willing to strike to change that.

Unionized charter school teachers rally outside on March 9, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

I work at a school called Passages in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. Our school has one of the highest percentages of refugee students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), 70 percent of which are low-income, over half black or brown, and four in ten with limited English skills.

It has a history of great students and teachers and staff. But there are also many great students and teachers and staff who have left because of the way our charter holder has marginalized us.

Those of us who return year after year do so because we know the potential of what we’re building. Yet every year, we lose services. And even when we get something new, it seems like we have two more taken away.

As soon as we unionized in 2017, we lost our teaching assistant (TA) support in K-2 before bargaining even started. The summer before last, we lost half of our paraprofessionals to layoffs. We had a counselor position vacant for two years after our last counselor resigned. Thankfully, this year that vital position in our school was finally filled. But we still need those TAs in K-2 and paraprofessionals. We need replacements for the special education and English language learner teachers who resigned and haven’t been replaced.

The students suffer from these gaps in services, and they deserve better. Like our students, we try to make the best with what we’ve got, because we are used to suffering and we’re good at surviving. But it’s not fair to the students, and it’s not fair to the staff.

Our charter holder claims its mission is to help people. Unless those people are teachers at Passages. Staff who returned to school this year found out when we received our first paycheck that our employer was not going to honor the “step increase” raises outlined in our contract. We make 20 percent less than teachers at CPS with the same experience currently make, 25 percent when you factor in pension pickups. While we earn less and work five hours more per week than our colleagues at CPS, our CEO takes home the same paycheck as the CEO of CPS (over a quarter-million dollars per year).

This is my seventh year teaching at this school, and I’ve seen great teachers leave because they couldn’t support their families on our salary. Teachers here work second jobs after school to make ends meet.

I’m starting to realize that the turnover at our school is by design. Experienced teachers aren’t supposed to stay here. We formed our union to change that.

Our charter holder does have a mission to help immigrants. They claim that these words in their mission statement have the same meaning as the “sanctuary school” language we’ve asked for in our contract proposal: “One person at a time, we deliver a network of culturally comprehensive human services to enable Asian and all underserved immigrants and refugees to thrive as ‘Healthy, Educated, and Employed’ members of society.”

Yet Passages management fought our sanctuary school language in our first contract. We lost that fight. In the shadow of what has happened in our country in recent years, we have renewed our call to declare Passages a sanctuary school, and Asian Human Services (AHS) have rejected it every time we’ve proposed it in our current contract campaign.

The teachers at Passages appreciate that we work for a company that provides services to help immigrants thrive, but we disagree that their mission statement is enough to protect our students, families, and staff from ICE raids and deportation. The other charters in our union who negotiated contracts last year got sanctuary school language in their contracts, and CPS has already approved sanctuary school language as well for its main teachers’ union contract.

This past week, after our press conference to announce our strike date on October 22, we received an email from AHS’s lawyer asking, “please clarify what your proposal is on sanctuary schools and sanctuary employer.” We sent our original language back to them again on October 12 with our latest counterproposal. Two hours later, we received an email that they were willing to accept this article, after six months of rejecting it.

Why is it that teachers have to fight to get our employer to put in writing that they won’t let ICE agents in our school? Why do we have to fight to make a salary on par with what other teachers in our union make, even to make a salary equal to what they made in their last contract? Why do we have to fight to give our administrative assistant a lunch break in the middle of the day? There is no good reason.

The charter system is flawed, and our union fights to level the playing field for students, teachers, and staff. We want to still be working at our school when our students come back to visit after graduating from high school or college. We want the best and brightest students to continue to come here and join our family.

Passages is unique, and Passages is valuable, and Passages needs to be protected. We fight to stay together, and we fight for equality, even though our charter holder tells us it’s not possible. It is possible. I tell my students something a great teacher once told me: “Never tell somebody what you can’t do . . . tell them I can try.” I don’t think we’ll ever be paid as well as CPS teachers because of the flawed nature of the charter system, but we can certainly try — and we can make life better for our students along the way.