Why My Charter School Needs a Union

Urban Prep teacher Dave Woo says unionization can shine a light *into the dark unknown crevices of charter school management*…

By Dave Woo
Urban_Prep_EnglewoodWhy does my charter school need a union? In a word: accountability. After having worked at Chicago’s Urban Prep Charter Academy for six years, I have serious concerns about how resources are allocated by my own charter network. And my research into whether charter schools are truly public or private entities under the law has convinced me that these problems aren’t confined to schools like Urban Prep or Chicago’s UNO network. There are serious questions that need to be asked about the lack of accountability for charter school operators. Having a union at charters schools will force operators to think twice before doing anything that isn’t in the best interest of students.

Shining a light
When a majority of teachers and staff at Urban Prep decided to organize a union represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, one of the first actions we took was to file a FOIA request in order to get a better sense of how the Urban Prep network uses the tax dollars and private donations it receives. Here are some of the things we found:

  1. trump towerUrban Prep spends over a quarter of a million dollars a year renting out downtown office space across the street from the Trump International Hotel and Tower for the network administrative staff.
  2. Urban Prep spends $70,000 dollars every year to take all of its staff to St. Charles, IL (a far west suburb almost an hour away from Urban Prep’s closest campus) for a network retreat.
  3. Urban Prep pays its principals salaries that are comparable to the salaries Chicago Public Schools principals, but pays first year teachers  $10,000 less on average than what the average CPS teacher earns.
  4. Urban Prep pays Tim King $220,000 to run 3 schools while the CEO of CPS earns $250,000 to run a district of nearly 700 schools.
  5. Since January 2014, Urban Prep has paid just over $100,000 to public relations firms.

urban prep 2Raising questions
Although the FOIAs haven’t uncovered anything illegal, Urban Prep’s allocation of resources raises questions about whether this money is actually going to improve the education of students. Our decision to form a union at Urban Prep isn’t primarily about compensation. It is about asking Urban Prep why they choose to rent out a space downtown for their administrative offices, when they could use a fraction of their rent to provide better technology to teachers (many teachers have had to purchase their own technology resources or ask for donations from Urban Prep). It is about asking Urban Prep why their administrators deserve comparable wages to their CPS counterparts, but teachers apparently don’t. But the questions we’re asking go beyond Urban Prep’s specific practices. This is about the ethics and fiscal responsibility of Urban Prep and all charter schools.

But the questions we’re asking go beyond Urban Prep’s specific practices. This is about the ethics and fiscal responsibility of Urban Prep and all charter schools.

Not an isolated problem
I recently had the opportunity to share a paper that I wrote at the AERA 2015 unomeeting in Chicago. The paper centered on a case involving Chicago’s largest charter network:  UNO Charter Schools. A gym teacher at one of the UNO schools was dismissed and the teacher filed a suit claiming that he had been discharged unfairly for whistle blowing about an incident of student-to-student sexual harassment. Although the case never went to trial, it picqued my interest in trying to understand whether charter schools are truly public or private entities under the law. Both my research into UNO’s questionable business practices and my own experiences as a charter school educator have made me acutely aware of what is at stake if some sort of check is not placed on charter school operators.

Waiting for answers
I’m convinced that unions are an important mechanism for holding charter schools accountable. In recent years, a coalition of forces has successfully framed unions as being resistant to reform and being a detriment to changes waiting-for-superman-image-copythat are needed in schools. The recent films, Waiting for Superman and The Lottery are prime examples of this effort to demonize unions. (As a side note, our founder required all of our employees to sit through both of these movies as professional development). And while unionization won’t address all of the accountability issues in charter schools, unions can help to shine a light into the dark unknown crevices of charter school management.

Still waiting
Efforts by teachers and staff at schools like Urban Prep should also encourage taxpayers to ask their own questions about the kinds of schools they are funding, and why teachers feel the need to organize in order to stand up to administrators. Urban Prep was scheduled to hold a public board meeting on April 16th. Many teachers and parents had hoped to attend in order to get answers to the sorts of questions that I’ve outlined here. The meeting was canceled on the evening of April 15th. It has yet to be rescheduled.

Dave Woo has been a teacher at Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy for six years.

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  1. bravo! thank you for sharing your insights, dave. and thank you for sharing dave’s insights, edushyster! people need to hear this. and they especially need to hear it from people on the inside.

  2. Let the movement continue as we push for stronger accountability measures for charter school. The major networks will never do an investigative report on charter schools and fraud.

  3. The grey area between unethical and illegal deserves careful scrutiny. When is a request to parents for a specific amount of money a ‘donation’ or a fee? When do long questionnaires and essays that are required for being in an applicant pool violate lottery admission rules? When is nepotism, not nepotism? When does sloppy governing board management i.e. failure to post meetings, require quorums etc. become a district oversight problem or a parent problem to correct?

    Do parents who want a well run charter school have only the right to leave as a way to protest? Or, is oversight of the operation of charter boards and bylaws part of the district responsibility? Some say yes; some say no. There are laws and regulations and there are work arounds.

    Maybe these things are the price to pay for privatization. If so, parents need to be educated about the risks. Privatizing schools through tax credits or charter contracts takes the public out of public education.

      1. Unlike in other places in the country where charter authorizers are different entities from the school district, here in Chicago, it’s the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that authorize charter schools and the AUSL contract schools, too. So technically, CPS oversees those schools as well and your total is still a bit off. It’s not “nearly 600,” it’s 664 schools.

  4. Sounds to me like you’re looking to turn your charter schools into public schools. Saw this coming from a mile away-are you kidding me?

  5. I am a former Urban Prep teacher and colleague of Mr. Woo’s. Every word he says is true. Urban Prep’s slogan is “we believe.” I know for a fact that the teachers I worked with believe in their students and dedicate long, hard hours to providing them with the best possible educational experience, the administrators who operate Urban Prep seem to believe in promoting their brand with an eye toward national expansion; providing themselves with palatial offices across the street from the Trump Tower; maintaining a posse of lobbyists and consultants; and paying themselves six figure salaries.

    Meanwhile, primarily young and inexperienced teachers struggle to deliver a rigorous college preparatory curriculum without computers, without projectors, without textbooks and frequently, without the paper required to make copies. Teachers are forced to purchase these items with their own personal funds, or solicit donations on such websites as DonorsChoose.org (until Tim King personally banned educators from utilizing the site, once he learned many of us
    were doing so).

    The working conditions I experienced at Urban Prep were the worst of my career, which has been spent entirely in the inner city. I used my personal resources to make copies because Urban Prep would not purchase sufficient amounts of paper; I brought my personal laptop to school since a computer was not provided; lessons came from the Internet because no textbooks were purchased. Like all Urban Prep teachers, I was frequently forced to give up at least one of my two “prep” periods – time I needed to grade, tutor students in need of extra help, and eat my own lunch – to substitute for my colleagues who were absent. The reason? Urban Prep, with its $70,000 staff retreat and $250,000 downtown office space, claimed it could not afford to hire substitute teachers.

    While students attempt to prepare for college without books or computers (let alone a research based curriculum that would truly help to close the gap between themselves and their more affluent peers), and teachers attempt to deliver lessons without paper (while also going without lunch), Mr. Tim King pays himself six figures and enjoys
    spectacular views from his office across from the Trump Tower. Yet somehow, nobody is supposed to have this information. We’re all supposed to swallow the mythology that Mr. King is the benevolent Pied Piper of Chicago’s African American adolescent male population. If that were true, each of the three Urban Prep campuses would have resources to rival affluent suburban districts. But instead, Mr. King has an awesome downtown office to throw poker parties for his rich friends, and the teachers and students of Urban Prep work and learn in a very typical inner city environment devoid of paper, textbooks, and rigor.

    If any charter school in Chicago needs a union it’s Urban Prep. I stand with my former colleagues and encourage all teachers, everywhere, to do the same.

  6. They had yet another anti-union captive audience meeting at Urban Prep yesterday. If you live in Illinois, your public education dollars are going to private companies so that they can bust unions, not so they can educate children.

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