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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Illinois charter schools sue state, Chicago education boards over pro-union law

The charter schools say a pro-teachers union state law violates their free speech and property rights.

CHICAGO (CN) — Three charter school networks sued Chicago's and Illinois' education boards on Tuesday, hoping to block a recent state law that makes it easier for charter school teachers to unionize.

The law at stake is Illinois Public Act 103-0416, enacted August 2023. It prevents charter schools from actively opposing their teachers' efforts to unionize, stating the schools "will not at any time express a position on the matter of whether its employees will be unionized and ... that the charter school will not threaten, intimidate, discriminate against, retaliate against or take any adverse action against any employees based on their decision to support or oppose union representation."

The three plaintiff school networks — the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, Intrinsic Schools and the Montessori Network — claim in their suit the law violates their free speech and property rights, and is preempted by federal labor law.

"The act ... is a state regulatory measure that seeks to advance Illinois' chosen labor policies in direct contravention of the rights guaranteed to charter schools and their employees under the National Labor Relations Act," the charter school networks wrote in their 26-page complaint.

The plaintiffs say the language of the 2023 law compels charter schools "to grant union organizers and agents access to and use of their property." They argue the law also denies schools the right to speak out against unionization to employees.

"The act is a gag order that censors charter schools from honestly communicating with their stakeholders, including employees, parents, students, funders, legislators, voters and community members, on significant political and
ideological issues," the plaintiffs wrote.

They now seek a court declaration that the law is unconstitutional as applied to them, along with a permanent injunction against its enforcement. To that end, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is also named as a defendant.

For years in the Windy City, advocates of privately-operated charter schools have spearheaded ideological opposition to teacher unions, particularly the left-leaning and politically influential Chicago Teachers Union. That union — which the plaintiffs namedrop in the complaint — has in turn fought in both Chicago and Springfield to protect public schooling from privatization efforts.

It has historically opposed charter school expansion in particular because charter schools, despite being privately operated, also receive public funding from the city's school board. The union supported the 2023 law the charter school networks now hope to enjoin, and still offers to help as-yet ununionized charter school staff organize.

"CTU knows that what’s best for the educators and students at charter schools is not always what the charter operator CEO wants to hear," the union states on its charter school unionization webpage. "Charter teachers have said loud and clear that a formal and respected collective voice has let them make their schools better places to teach and better places for students to learn."

Charter school staff in Chicago began unionizing as early as 2009 with the American Federation of Teachers, but in 2018 the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff joined the Chicago Teachers Union. As of 2024, the union represents the employees of 13 charter school operators spread across 35 campuses.

The plaintiff networks' lawsuit comes as the union prepares to negotiate a new contract for its members, with the current 2019 contract set to expire at the end of this month.

That contract instituted a moratorium on new charter schools in the city.

The conflict between the Chicago Teachers Union and charter schools was on full display during Chicago's most recent mayoral election, which saw former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas face off against former public school teacher and Chicago Teachers Union member Brandon Johnson.

Vallas helped facilitate the privatization of much of New Orleans' and Philadelphia's public school systems, and on the campaign trail he called for expanding the number of "alternative" schools across Chicago.

Even now, more than a year after Johnson won the election, Vallas continues to write in favor of school choice and in opposition of the union.

In an op-ed the Chicago Tribune published earlier this month, the would-be mayor attacked the union's preliminary demands as it prepares to renew its contract. He also advocated for the city to make its own demands in the negotiations and to "remove caps on public charter schools and rescind encroaching state and district mandates that are interfering with their ability to innovate."

The charter networks' attorneys with the Chicago law firm Goldberg Kohn did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Chicago Teachers Union or the Chicago Board of Education's law department. Courthouse News was unable to reach the Illinois state education board by press time.

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Categories / Education, Regional

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