books vs. food

Skipping meals to afford books: College students’ financial woes go beyond tuition payments, survey shows

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio with KIPP co-founder David Levin at KIPP Infinity Middle School.

As a student at Hunter College in Manhattan, Ernest Gould worked multiple jobs, but still had trouble paying for basic living expenses like books, food and transportation.

So he would skip “a lot of meals,” mostly breakfast, to help pay for things like MetroCards and school supplies. Even then, he didn’t have enough money to buy a laptop or a phone, which meant he did all of his homework in the library — often staying until late at night to finish.

“It’s just another level of anxiety that you have to deal with,” he said.

Gould is one of many college students struggling to pay for expenses beyond the school’s tuition, according to a survey of almost 3,000 former KIPP students released last week.

KIPP, a charter network with schools in New York, New Jersey and other cities, sends an average of 81 percent of its graduates to college. But, as the survey reveals, many struggle financially once they get there.

More than 40 percent of surveyed students — the majority of whom are low-income — reported missing meals so they could pay for books or other school expenses. About one-quarter of students said they are either fully or partially supporting their families while in college.

KIPP’s survey is a reminder that the cost of college extends well beyond tuition for many students. That concept is not new, but it has resurfaced in the debate over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to provide free college tuition at state colleges for all families earning less than $125,000 per year.

Cuomo’s plan was hailed as a much-needed boost for middle-class families. But it has also drawn criticism for providing little to no assistance for low-income students who are already receiving state and federal grants, but could benefit from help with other costs, such as books, food and rent.

KIPP’s co-founder David Levin is a proponent of Cuomo’s tuition plan, which he says will ease the cost burden on some former KIPP students who do not receive full financial aid at college. He also hopes it will crack open a larger conversation about the myriad financial challenges low-income college students face.

“Tuition is the gatekeeper for kids overall, so if there are increased funds that cover college tuition … there will be the ability to focus on these broader issues,” Levin said.

The survey’s findings highlight the unmet need. Nearly 60 percent of KIPP alumni reported worrying about running out of food during college. In addition, only about 30 percent said they had found jobs or internships aligned to their career aspirations.

For many, finding a job — any job — is essential because they are helping to support their families. That is especially common among students enrolled in two-year programs, the survey found: Thirty-four percent of those surveyed reported helping out occasionally and 14 percent said they fully financially support their families.

That finding gets to the heart of another provision in Cuomo’s free college tuition plan, which requires students to be enrolled full-time in order to qualify for the scholarship. Cuomo and the plan’s supporters have said that rule is meant to encourage on-time graduation since students enrolled in college full-time are more likely to earn a degree.

But others argue the plan unfairly cuts out students who have to attend school part-time to support family members. While Gould supports Cuomo’s tuition proposal, he understands how holding a job can make it tough to cram a full load of credits into one semester.

Gould has been working full-time to help support his family since his mom lost her job two years ago. His days at school frequently ended in night shifts at a Manhattan hotel. Now he ushers at Madison Square Garden.

Through it all, he’s maintained a 3.0 GPA and is on track to finish school this semester, about five and a half years after he started. That timeline would not have worked under Cuomo’s tuition plan. As currently written, students would have to average 15 credits and, except in limited circumstances, have to finish in four years.

“Honestly, 15 credits would have been impossible,” Gould said.

Levin said the stories of his students and the survey results reveal an important truth: Cuomo’s plan is a great step, but there is more to do going forward.

“I think it’s an incredible plan,” Levin said. “I think what we’ve learned, and what colleges know, is that it takes more than just tuition to get kids through.”

Charter strike

Chicago’s second charter strike ends with pay wins for teachers and paraprofessionals

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Teachers and supporters march in front of Chicago International Charter Schools' corporate offices on the fifth day of the strike.

Chicago’s second charter school strike ended early Monday with the teachers union winning concessions on pay raises for teachers and paraprofessionals that will put their salaries on par with educators at non-charter schools.

Under the deal, reached overnight after two weeks without classes, the union said Monday that teachers at four Chicago International charter schools, known as CICS, will see an immediate 8 percent pay bump. Over the next four years, their salaries will rise more substantially.

Paraprofessionals will be brought up to district pay scales immediately, the union said.

Students and teachers at the four schools, are managed by Civitas Education Partners, will return to class Tuesday. CICS oversees 14 schools in all a complex organization that includes multiple managers.

The deal ends the the latest display of the Chicago Teachers Union’s organizing muscle ahead of several high-stakes contract negotiations, including contract with Chicago Public Schools that expires in the spring, and several other charter contracts still in talks.

The contract will apply only to the four schools that have a union and were on strike: Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison, Wrightwood, and Chicago Quest. But a spokesperson for CICS said Monday that the organization was “committed to equity” across its other 10 campuses and is in internal discussions about how the bargaining will impact teachers and classrooms at its non-unionized schools.

CICS had warned during the strike that it could face bankruptcy if it implemented all of the union’s demands. In a statement Monday, the network said that the issue of “limited funding” was an “unfortunate reality in public education.”

“In order to pay for such a significant salary increase, we will be forced to make certain cuts and compromises,” the statement said. “For example, we will likely need to limit the number of instructional coaches, assistant principals and other valuable support staff members.”

The tentative agreement brings to an end a contentious nine-day strike that started with picket lines and escalated late last week when dozens of teachers blocked the lobby of the Loop high-rise housing the offices of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The board president of CICS, Laura Thonn, is a partner in the Chicago offices of the firm.

Friday also was payday for teachers, who received substantially smaller checks than they would have had they been working.

The teachers union and CICS said that the tentative agreement also guarantees assistants in kindergarten, first-, and second-grade classrooms; paid parental leave for teachers; and a slightly shorter work day. The tentative agreement cuts the workday by 15 minutes but does not reduce instructional time, CICS said Monday.

One sticking point was also class size. The tentative agreement sets a “goal” of 28 students per class with a clause that limits class sizes to 30. Overcrowding at district schools has been a point of intensifying discussion this year, too, with a new report from the group Parents 4 Teachers showing that more than 1,000 classrooms in kindergarten through eighth-grade in Chicago have more than 30 students.

“We have finally won a contract that our schools, students, and our staff deserve,” said Jen Conant, a CICS Northtown teacher and member of the bargaining team.

The tentative contract will now go to the broader union membership for a vote.

Charter strike

On Chicago charter strike, how far will the teachers union go?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Picket signs used by protesting strikers from the Chicago International Charter Schools, who were targeting charter network CEO Elizabeth Shaw on Feb. 11, 2019.

Chicago’s second charter strike has now stretched over nine days. Beyond picket lines and hashtags on social media, the Chicago Teachers Union has blocked a lobby of a Loop high rise, delivered labor-themed Valentines to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall, and even wrangled appearances from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

How hard will the union push and what’s at stake in its efforts to win a new contract for teachers?

Related: Multiple CEOs, multiple layers: Strike puts charter management under microscope

It could be the future of charter organizing in Chicago, experts say. A victory could “buoy a local wave of new charter school strikes,” said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But if the contract doesn’t bring home the goods, failure could cast a pall over future organizing at dozens of Chicago charters — and untold numbers elsewhere.

Bruno expects in coming days to see increased pressure on members of Chicago International’s board, and possibly even a civil disobedience confrontation that ends in arrests. “They’ll look for ways to demonstrate that the ownership and leaders of this charter operator are not people who are invested in schools,” Bruno said, while “looking for ways to move the employer at the bargaining table.”

But the union’s strategy is risky.

Private employers can permanently replace strikers because its teachers are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act which protects public employees.

Chicago International, where teachers at four schools are on strike, has dug in its heels, arguing that granting union demands would bankrupt the network within a few years. “They want a compensation that is fiscally irresponsible for us to agree to,” said LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Education Partners, one of a handful of management companies contracting to run some of the network’s 14 schools.

The strike also comes in the final weeks of Chicago’s mayoral election. The union has backed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but critics wonder if the union’s effort in maintaining the strike means it’s paying less attention to getting Preckwinkle into office.

But the union has tried-and-true tactics, Bruno said, including political pressure and escalating protests that have helped win tough contract battles in the past. It’s become more combative since the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, won leadership of the union in 2010 with a promise to fight against educational inequalities.

That approach helped teachers in the 2012 strike, when thousands of union members went out on a weeklong strike that captured national headlines and pushed their demands beyond just wages and benefits to broader school-quality factors.

Union political pressure also worked in December, when 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job during the nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers.

Along with pickets throughout the four-day strike at schools across the city, the union also brought attention to how the network had used its political connections to expand. Strikers stormed the office of powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas thick with Acero schools. Burke then called the network’s CEO and pressed for an agreement. The strike ended shortly afterward.

The Chicago Teachers Union is also known for its staying power in strikes. In 2012, teachers stayed on strike an extra day to make sure that most members were able to review line items of the new contract before it was signed, despite pressure from Emanuel to end the strike. That strike lasted a total of seven days.

In the case of the Chicago International strike, Bruno said the charter network may shoulder the greater risk. The network, which oversees 14 schools run by five charter management organizations, some of which subcontract management to a third operator, has argued that meeting the union’s demands for wages could push the entire network into bankruptcy.

A strong contract that benefits teachers could also push teachers at the network’s 10 non-unionized schools to push for higher wages, Bruno said. “That could be a problem for the employer.”

While the union may be using tactics it has found successful in the past, management of Chicago International doesn’t respond to the same pressures, organizers acknowledged.

If the campaign doesn’t win raises for teachers, or results in cuts to the classroom, Bruno said it could risk slowing down the broader movement to unionize charters. “It gives teachers across the charter school system pause. They are no less interested in having a collective voice but they will remain somewhat uncertain that the union is the appropriate venue for that,” he said.

Richard Berg, an organizer in the Chicago Teacher Union’s charter division, said that because Chicago International and Civitas aren’t political in the same way that Acero is, the union has shifted to focus to the network’s unusual management structure and its connection to big business.

“If you look at their board, it’s not education people or community people. It’s corporate lawyers and money people,” Berg said. “Our strategy has been to say: OK, well, what is going to influence money people to care about children? The morality of it.”

A federal mediator already attends negotiations between Chicago International and the union.  The network requested federal mediation a month and a half ago, and since then a representative from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been present both at bargaining and in the discussions held independently on each side.

Both teachers and management blame the delay in coming to an agreement on the other side.

“We are determined to make these schools right for our students,” Berg of the union said. “We hope [management] will do the right thing sooner rather than later, because we have thousands of students that are missing school because of management’s intransigence.”

The network, meanwhile, said it’s focused on finding an agreement in negotiations to get back to the classroom. “We are focused on trying to end the strike so that our kids can get back in school,” Khan said.