Unionized teachers with Aspira rallied outside one of the charter network's high schools March 9 to try to convince the company to come to terms on a contract. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Back in 2012, when Chicago Public Schools teachers went on strike, Juan Rangel, the CEO of the UNO Charter School Network, proudly told reporters his schools were open.

And they had plenty of vacancies, so parents pissed off at the striking Chicago Teachers Union should come on down and enroll their kids. A similar note was sounded by other charter operators—and the subtext was hard to miss.

Charter school teachers don’t want a union, wouldn’t join one if they could, and, as one prominent business leader put it, don’t even need one.

“The good teachers know they’ll do fine,” Bruce Rauner said in a speech shortly after the strike. “It’s the weak teachers. It’s the lousy, ineffective, lazy teachers that—unfortunately, there are a number of those—they’re the ones that the union is protecting.”

Man, how things have changed.

Rauner—now our governor—is still singing his same antiunion song. But Rangel’s long gone from UNO, having been ousted after a contracting scandal. And UNO’s teaching force is now unionized.

In fact, teachers at 32 of the city’s 125 charter campuses are unionized. Last week, the teachers at one of these charters, Aspira, came close to going on strike before settling for a two-year contract with annual raises of 3 and 3.5 percent.

And now, teachers at Noble schools have announced they’re taking the first steps to forming a union at their 17 Chicago campuses.

There are several reasons why charter school teachers are talking unions—including the uncertainty brought on by Rauner’s withholding state aid to Chicago’s schools, charters included.

But I’d like to focus on one money issue nobody wants to talk about: teacher salaries. As in how charter school teachers make less than their unionized peers.

Look, I realize it’s unseemly to talk about salaries when it comes to teaching. Teaching’s supposed to be a profession with a higher calling—unlike, say, running a private equity company, like Rauner did, where you’re free to be as greedy as you want.

Certainly, charter school teachers don’t raise this topic when talking about why they’re forming a union. They’ll talk about wanting a greater voice in educational decisions or the need to make school leadership more transparent. But pay? Nope.

They have their reasons. One, they didn’t go into teaching to make a lot of money. And, two, if they raise the topic, they can expect that someone—whether it’s Rauner or Mayor Rahm—will pound them for being greedy.

So let me raise the subject for them: How can you recruit and retain a cadre of the best and brightest teachers if you pay them peanuts?

How can you recruit and retain the best and brightest teachers if you pay them peanuts?

Let’s briefly consider the situation at Noble, where teachers are just starting a union drive.

Founded in 1999 by Michael and Tonya Milkie, a couple of former CPS teachers, Noble began with one branch on the near northwest side. Since then it’s expanded to 17 campuses, having earned a reputation as a high-scoring, well-run operation.

Mayor Rahm has praised Noble. Rauner donated money to it—Noble named one of its branches for him.

But then there’s the issue of salary.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. Their payrolls aren’t listed on the CPS website, like the payrolls for the rest of the schools in CPS are.

Last year Melissa Sanchez, an enterprising sleuth at the Chicago Reporter, secured a copy of Noble’s payroll after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the school.

Give Noble credit for turning over the payroll and not stonewalling—as Mayor Rahm, CPS, Governor Rauner, and other charter operators have been known to do with FOIA requests.

Sanchez discovered that Noble paid its teachers less than what CPS paid its unionized workforce. “On average, full-time Noble teachers make about $52,000 per year in salaries, $5,500 in performance bonuses and $2,000 in stipends for taking on extra responsibilities,” Sanchez wrote.

That’s about $60,000. In contrast, she found, “at district-run schools, teachers make about $74,000 on average, state data show. Only two teachers at Noble top $74,000 in salary alone.”

Look, I’m not picking on Noble (whose spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment). But it’s one thing to pay less than the going rate if you’re a ma-and-pa operation with one, maybe two branches. It’s something else if you’re got 17 campuses with more on the way.

In 2015, when Noble tried to open a north-side branch, the company was met with resistance from neighborhood parents, who were concerned that opening new charter schools would only divert money from existing public ones.

So charter operators—not just Noble—are largely relegated to lower-income black and Hispanic communities. That means we have a two-tier system: higher-paid teachers on the north side and in the magnet schools, and lower-paid teachers in the lower-income minority communities.

And let’s not forget the suburbs and exclusive private schools like Francis Parker, the Latin School, and the University of Chicago Lab Schools—they all pay their teachers more than charters do.

It’s funny: Everyone from Rahm to Rauner says they believe teaching is one of the most important jobs in society, ’cause our children’s futures are at stake. And nothing is more important than our children.

Well, apparently some children matter more than others—if how much we pay their teachers is any indication.

For what it’s worth, I come from a long line of teachers’ union activists. My mother, a public school teacher for almost 40 years, was a CTU delegate who led her colleagues on many a strike. One of my kids is a union organizer in another state. Hell, I sit on the bargaining team for the Reader‘s editorial workers.

Having said that, I think even my free-market friends would agree that teachers should try to get the best deal they can. I realize that younger, idealistic kids just out of college may not think twice about things like salary. But as they grow older and think about things like raising a family, buying a house, taking a vacation, or paying off those college bills—you know, things other professionals do—they’re undoubtedly going to have a different perspective.

So charter school backers—like Governor Rauner and the Walton family of Wal-Mart—have a choice. If they don’t want charter school teachers to join a union, they’d better open their wallets and kick in a little more scratch.

Otherwise, don’t be surprised if it’s solidarity forever, baby.   v