Originally published in The American Prospect on March 7, 2017.
Teachers at Chicago’s biggest and best-regarded charter school network have set out to form a union, a move that if successful would create the largest charter school union in the nation.
In an open letter to administrators and school board members, teachers at the Noble Network of Charter Schools requested permission to organize a union without interference or fear of retaliation. Founded in 1999, Noble operates 17 campuses across the city, educating more than 12,000 students.
“Under current local and national conditions, educators labor to remain in their classrooms while our value is diminished, our capacity drained, and our power constrained,” read the letter, which was delivered on March 3. “Both students and educators struggle to thrive in climates that prioritize test scores and compliance over creativity and personhood. Our students’ learning conditions are our working conditions.”
As of Friday morning, 131 of the roughly 800 Noble teachers and staff across city had signed on in support of the union. Union organizers told The American Prospecton Monday that they have received many more signatures since then, but could not say exactly how many because online signatures are still being tallied.
Known for “high expectations,” as its website says, Noble Network has earned a reputation as one of the most high-performing charter networks in the country. Last year, 90 percent of Noble high school seniors went on to college. In 2015, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation awarded Noble a $250,000 prize for being among the nation’s top charter networks.
On Monday, Noble teachers held a press conference in advance of a Noble school board meeting, reiterating their request to management for a fair and neutral process.
The response they have received from network CEO Michael Milkie has been skeptical.
“We respect the rights of individuals to organize or not organize, and we will continue to address concerns of teachers, staff, parents, and all members of the Noble community,” said Milkie in an emailed statement. “In my experience as a former CPS teacher, I believe a restrictive union contract could eliminate the curriculum and flexibility we have to best serve our students’ needs.”
In most cases, charter teachers have waited until they secured a solid majority in support of their union efforts before going public with their organizing. However, in cases where the size of the unit was considered too large to possibly conduct effective organizing in secret and still maintain job security, workers have sometimes opted to launch public campaigns.
This is the strategy being pursued by charter teachers organizing a union at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, the largest charter chain in Los Angeles. They have been organizing publicly since the spring of 2015. Several months after LA teachers launched their union drive, California’s state labor board announced that it would be issuing an injunction to block Alliance administrators from interfering with their staff’s organizing. Two weeks ago, Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers, also called on Alliance to stop interfering in their teachers’ union drive.
One issue Noble teachers hope to address with a union is high teacher turnover. Last year Melissa Sanchez, a Chicago-based education journalist, reported that state data on certified teachers showed that annual retention averaged 75 percent in recent years across the Noble network, compared with 79 percent at traditional public schools, and 83 percent when in-district transfers were taken into account.
Mariel Race, a Noble teacher involved in the organizing efforts, says her charter network has long focused on expansion, but now operates so many schools that it’s time to shift gears towards retaining strong teachers. “We’ve given our feedback on teacher retention for many, many years, and I don’t feel like it’s really being heard,” she told The American Prospect. “There’s not a whole lot that’s being done about it. I think that having a teacher perspective at the table is a huge piece, and I think in order to be heard, with legal backing, and collective backing, it needs to be a union.”
“We need to keep teachers around,” adds James Kerr, a high school English teacher at Noble. “I can go back to my own high school and I’ll see the same teachers who taught when I was there. That’s what I want for our kids.”
Another issue teachers hope to address is salaries—Noble has no pay-scale, leading sometimes to substantial variation among staff wages. Exit interviews revealed that 39 percent of teachers departing Noble—especially female staff—did not feel they were paid fairly. Through an open records request, Sanchez also found that on average, Noble Street teachers earn about $52,000 a year in salaries, and can earn $5,500 in performance bonuses and $2,000 extra in stipends. An average school teacher in a traditional Chicago public school earns roughly $15,000 more than that.
Chicago already has an unusually large number of charter unions. Thirty-two schools, or a quarter of the city’s charter schools, are currently organized with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers & Staff, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. In an AFT press release, Chris Baehrend, the president of Chicago ACTS said that Noble educators are “asking for management to be fair and neutral in this process. After they have succeeded, nearly half of the charter educators in Chicago will have the power of a union behind them in advocating for the schools their students deserve.”
The president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, also voiced support for the Noble Street teachers. “The Chicago Teachers Union stands in complete solidarity with the courageous teachers and staff in the Union of Noble Educators, and personally, I am extremely proud of their desire to strengthen their collective voice to better advocate for the students they serve,” she said in a statement.
While Race says she and her colleagues are “inspired” by the experiences other charter teachers have had in organizing unions, and “humbled” by what they’ve had to go through, Noble teachers want to make their very own union a grassroots organization that represents their school community.