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Chicago teachers vote on contract deal as charter supporters hold rally

CHICAGO (MCT) — Chicago teachers voted on a tentative contract agreement Tuesday even as the battle over the future of the city’s public schools ratcheted up with a large and boisterous rally in support of privately run charter schools.

Several thousand charter supporters waved pom-pons and glow sticks at the UIC Pavilion, a surge of energy comparable to what was seen in several rallies last month of Chicago Teachers Union members and backers who oppose charters. The rally, co-sponsored by a large charter operator, was attended by many parents.

“It’s important for me to get her on a path to attend a university,” said Barbara Bartolomei, 42, of her daughter, who’s in kindergarten at a charter school. “Charter schools mean business.”

The new teachers contract is expected to cost about $74 million a year and charter operators are pressing to make sure Chicago Public Schools doesn’t pay for it by tapping into money intended for publicly funded charters. The city plans to add 60 charters over five years.

“They negotiated a contract but it should not be at the expense of charter schools,” said Juan Rangel, chief executive officer of United Neighborhood Organization, a politically connected charter operator that helped organize Tuesday’s rally. “When you have a teacher’s union whose agenda is to eliminate charter schools there’s always concern.”

The CTU has fought the rise of charters, whose teachers are not CTU members. Adding fuel to the issue are plans being considered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to close up to 120 failing and under-enrolled schools, even as charter growth continues.

Education policy expert Rod Estvan said the stage is being set for “charter wars” that will pit not only charter supporters against labor advocates, but also involve individual charter operators who will be competing for students, facilities and money. He said the administration knows that when it announces its plans there will be an outcry in the communities where schools are being closed.

“They don’t want public discussion of this for fear of what it will bring,” said Estvan, who is with the disability rights group Access Living. “They’re afraid of the reaction from community-based organizations on losing assets within their communities.”

Union officials who led members on a seven-day strike accuse the district of taking resources away from neighborhood schools to pay for charters. Charter supporters point to the teacher walkout as yet another example of how labor is bent on protecting jobs, not improving a failing school system.

The district’s current budget, passed in August, provided an additional $76 million for charter schools. The school board will consider the teachers contract later this month, presuming it is approved by teachers, and will need to amend the budget.

David Lewis, principal at CICS Wrightwood charter school, said the purpose of Tuesday’s rally was to support equity in funding for all Chicago schools, including charters. “This is about access to resources for all children in Chicago,” Lewis said.

CTU President Karen Lewis chose to cast her ballot on the contract agreement Tuesday at Dyett High School in Bronzeville, which is slated for gradual closing. The Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization has fought the district’s plan to close the school, filing a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.

Students Tuesday complained about being unable to use parts of the building and being forced to use a back door, making them feel like “the help.”

“It would always be nice to be part of a plan, and it was clear when this school was put on the hit list, the voices of the community — the parents, the children — were not heard or were heard and ignored, which is even worse,” Lewis said.

CPS officials said with Dyett’s student population dropping to 186 this year, administrators decided to use only part of the building, which can hold up to 1,200 students.

As the district closes schools, Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, a co-sponsor of Tuesday night’s rally, said charters are ready to move in where appropriate.

“We certainly advocate for access to public buildings, and to the extent CPS is making decisions to close schools, we certainly want highly performing charters to be considered for those facilities,” Broy said.

Results of the CTU contract vote are expected to be available by Thursday morning.

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