Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is The American Prospect's senior writing fellow. 

Recent Articles

Chicago Charter School Strike Deadline Looms

Unionized teachers and staff at UNO, a charter network comprising 16 elementary and high schools in Chicago, may go on strike Wednesday.

Many local news organizations have incorrectly claimed that a walkout by the unionized charter school teachers would be the first labor action of its kind. But as Jacobin first reported, teachers at a Philadelphia charter school staged a “sick-out” in 2011 when school administrators refused to bargain in good faith; the two sides ultimately reached a contract compromise. In 2014, the unionized teachers at the same Philadelphia charter voted to strike, but reached a contract deal with administrators before a walkout took place.

Nevertheless, a UNO strike would be significant development. UNO is one of the largest charter chains in the city, educating roughly 8,000 students. As more charter teachers opt to unionize across the country, more educators will likely begin engaging in traditional labor protests.

More than 95 percent of the 532 unionized UNO workers voted in favor of going on strike. The stickiest points of the charter union’s negotiations revolve around pension payments, class size caps, and salary increases. Their first-ever contract, negotiated in March 2014, has expired. Teachers and school administrators have been in contract talks for the past eight months.

“We aren’t going to strike just to make history,” says Erica Stewart, a fifth grade UNO teacher on the union bargaining team. “It’s just not feasible, or the right thing. If we need to walk off the job, it needs to be for the right reasons.”

While UNO administrators have said that they can’t afford to pay for all the teachers’ demands, the union members don’t believe them. Teachers point to things like UNO's central offices located in downtown Chicago, which rent for more than $30,000 per month. They argue that their employer could be making very different budget choices.

Union leaders and school administrators plan to bargain all day Tuesday. If they fail to reach an agreement by midnight, then teachers will strike. UNO has already reached out to families to warn them that all school and extracurricular activities may be cancelled beginning Wednesday.

Stewart, who has taught at UNO for six years, says that the working conditions at her school were very challenging before the charter network formed a union in 2013.

“I was constantly afraid to ask for anything, I was afraid to leave my classroom if I needed a bathroom break,” she says. “I always felt I was going to get fired, and I took the job because I’ve got three kids at home to feed and I needed the work. I love teaching, and I love my students. It was just really difficult to work in a culture of fear like that.”

When I asked how parents and students have reacted to the possibility of a strike, Stewart says they’ve tried to keep bargaining politics out of the classroom and have organized informational meetings for parents, off-campus, after school hours. “The parents have been going out of their way to talk to us,” says Stewart. “They’re also trying to get their own voices heard within UNO.”

Will The Nation’s Capital Become a National Leader on Paid Leave?

Washington, D.C.'s city council is considering a bill that would be the country's most progressive paid leave policy.

(Photo: Flickr/bootbearwdc)
(Photo: Flickr/bootbearwdc Washington, D.C. City Council chambers T he clock is ticking, and pressure is mounting for the D.C. City Council to vote on the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015—a bill, that, if approved, would become the most progressive paid leave law in the country. Originally introduced last October, the measure has to be voted on by the end of 2016 lest it die in committee. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world to not offer paid leave, and only 12 percent of U.S. workers are currently entitled to it through their employer. While Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993—which offers new parents and those with sick family members the right to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs—even this law covers only about 60 percent of the workforce, and many eligible workers simply cannot afford to take unpaid time off. In light of these realities, some states have taken paid family leave into their own hands. Four—California,...

When Public Schools Go Private

A landmark report notes the toll that private enterprises, including charter schools, take on the public’s control over the institutions it funds.

Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock
Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock T he Census Bureau released new data earlier this month that showed the median household income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2 percent over 2014. This marked the largest single-year increase since at least 1967, the federal agency reported. Moreover, this income growth was concentrated among the poor and the middle class, and 2.7 million fewer Americans were living in poverty in 2015 than a year prior. Despite these encouraging trends, they come nowhere close to reversing the dramatic rise in inequality we’ve seen since the late 1970s. As the Economic Policy Institute reported in June , in 2013, the top 1 percent of American families gained 25 times as much income during that time as the bottom 99 percent. And as The New York Times recently noted, the median household still earns 1.6 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars now than it did prior to the housing market collapse. With that in mind, a new report released today by In the Public Interest, a...

Q&A: Pulling Back the Curtain on Education Philanthropy

Political scientist Megan Tompkins-Stange discusses her new book about the role of philanthropic foundations in education policy, and why they should be more accountable to the public. 

Peter Smith, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
Peter Smith, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy University of Michigan public policy professor, Megan Tompkins-Stange Private foundations give millions of dollars to public education every year, but these powerful institutions typically operate behind a curtain of secrecy. In a new book , Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, University of Michigan public policy professor Megan Tompkins-Stange sheds new light on the role philanthropy plays in public education, particularly in the arena of charter schools and other market-based reforms. Tompkins-Stange spent five years conducting confidential interviews with foundation insiders at the Ford Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Analyzing their diverse, and sometimes competing, approaches to grant-giving, she raises important questions about the influence that philanthropic interests wield in American...

The National Labor Relations Board Says Charter School Teachers Are Private Employees

Recent labor board decisions help clarify longstanding ambiguity around charter school teachers’ right to organize.  

DGLimages/Shutterstock
DGLimages/Shutterstock T he National Labor Relations Board issued a pair of decisions in late August, which ruled that teachers at charter schools are private employees, therefore falling under the NLRB’s jurisdiction. The cases centered on two schools with teachers vying for union representation: PA Virtual Charter School, a statewide cyber charter in Pennsylvania, and Hyde Leadership Charter School, located in Brooklyn. In both cases, the NLRB concluded that the charters were “private corporation[s] whose governing board members are privately appointed and removed,” and were neither “created directly by the state” nor “administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate.” The NLRB determined that a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor, as governments provide the funding but do not originate or control the schools. For Donna Novicki, a seventh grade science teacher at PA Virtual, the NLRB’s decision...

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