Charter School Teachers Are Organizing (and Joining Forces with Public School Counterparts)

Unions are the place for millennials looking to make their voices heard.

Photo Credit: ChiACTS.org

Non-union charter schools are beloved by billionaire education reformers and school privatization fans, both red and blue. But charter schools also rely upon those same young workers, who as polls indicate, have far more favorable views of unions than previous generations.

In the latest episode of the Have You Heard podcast, AlterNet education editor Jennifer Berkshire and co-host Jack Schneider explore the intersection of these trends. They’re joined by Mihir Garud, a leader of Chicago’s union of charter school teachers, ChiACTS, who teaches consumer education and financial literacy at Instituto Health Sciences in Chicago. Nearly 25% of teachers in Chicago charter schools are union members vs. just 10% nationwide. Garud expects that figure to grow, as millennials, many of whom are drawn to teach in charter schools by a passion for economic and social justice, look to be part of a movement against Trump and his policies. 

The following is an edited transcript.

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Have You Heard: The path you took to the classroom of a charter school in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood was pretty unusual. Yet in a lot of ways your story could also stand in for the millennial trajectory writ large.

Mihir Garud: I was an econ major and my first job was as a stockbroker for a big bank. I was basically trading on the accounts of high net worth individuals. It felt like there was something lacking in my life. Also, I was contributing to  income inequality—the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer—and I didn't like that on my conscience. Now I get to teach consumer education and financial literacy to ninth graders, and it's actually a very, very rewarding job. When I see parents at report card pick-up day, they’ll say something like ‘you know, my son or daughter told me not to use a credit card or to watch the interest rates or pay down the debt.’ And that just makes the world of difference.

Have You Heard: You’re also the brand-new treasurer of a union for charter school teachers in Chicago. Here’s your opportunity to make the case for why we still need unions.

MG: I regard unions as one of the last remaining institutions in society that provides the necessary checks and balances needed on free market capital so that our democracy can function effectively. I think what we’re seeing is a battle between democracy and capitalism, and it's no question who has won in that battle and that's capitalism. Look at the way that the education reform debate has been hijacked by corporations and billionaires who now pour millions and millions of dollars into local races for school board. It’s a huge problem because it takes away the collective power of people and the collective power of democracy.

The problem with the education reform debate being dominated by billionaires and corporate CEOs is that most of them don't send their kids to public schools, nor do they know what it’s like to be a public school teacher. Teachers are the original education reformers and we need to take that debate back. There's a dire need for increased teacher voice and representation in a school’s decision making process. Who knows our kids better than the teachers who spend the most time with them?

Have You Heard: Charter schools remain extremely controversial in Chicago, where another round of school closures is underway. The neighborhoods that are now on the cusp of losing their last remaining public schools are also the places where charters have expanded most aggressively. How do you build bridges between teachers in Chicago Public Schools and charter schools when many of the former view the latter as the problem?

MG: I believe that educators are realizing that we're all teaching the same students and striving for the same improvements in the classroom in our schools. With any crisis, in this case the nomination of Betsy DeVos, or the pending Supreme Court decision about public sector unions, or the election of Donald Trump. People are recognizing the need to be part of a larger collective voice. There are many former Chicago Public Schools teachers who now work in charter schools, and lots of charter school teachers who are now CPS teachers. So we're in the same fight. We have the same concerns over issues, whether it be overcrowded classroom or making sure that diverse learners get the support they need.

What I'm noticing in Chicago is that people are getting more educated about the issues and they’re talking to each other. The enemy is not other teachers. In this case it’s charter operators who might not be acting in the best interests of kids or the community. I'm seeing a shift in the focus of that anger or concern away from charter school teachers to the operator or the management organization. And I think that's critical because this issue has been used to divide us for a long time. You know divide and conquer strategy is alive and well in many places especially in Chicago.

Have You Heard: Your work with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which is now set to merge with the Chicago Teachers Union, is a good reminder that organizing is still really about talking to people, even when it’s hard.

MG: I think one thing that led to the election of Donald Trump is that people are so in their bubbles. We stop having these important conversations because we think we already know what the other person thinks based on, say, where he lives. Well I think discomfort is necessary. If we're going to move beyond difficult issues then we have to have these kinds of conversations. And it doesn't mean that people who are against charter schools are bad people. We just need to have an honest conversation about the issues that matter and set politics aside.

I also hope that people get inspired, not just to talk to each other, but to be more active. I know that for me my personal inspiration was seeing Barack Obama become President. My inspiration to get more active in union work and in social justice issues was the election of Donald Trump, which got me out from behind the computer. Obama said ‘stop Tweeting, get off of Facebook and get out there and get a petition out and start collecting some signatures.’ It was really a call to action.

Listen to the complete podcast

Jennifer Berkshire writes about the end of public education and co-hosts a biweekly podcast on education in the time of Trump.