Letter to teachers

Here’s what outgoing union chief Karen Lewis told Chicago teachers this morning

PHOTO: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis in 2016

Retiring Chicago Teachers Union chief Karen Lewis, who has been fighting brain cancer, sent a note to Chicago teachers this morning urging them to support former Vice President Jesse Sharkey as her replacement and endorsing CTU Political Director Stacy Davis Gates for the position of vice-president.

“Our enemies are banking on this transition in CTU leadership to confuse, conflate and co-opt our union,” she wrote. “Do not let them.”

It’s a fraught time for the powerful Chicago teachers’ union, which is entering its first round of contract negotiations in the post-Janus era. As a result of the ruling, school districts can no longer require their employees to pay negotiating fees to the unions that bargain on their behalf. Observers predict a decline in union membership and dues, which would limit the unions’ political power.

The union also has been facing a budget deficit and pressure to afford rent payments on both a new building on the Near West Side and its previous space, which it has not been able to sublet.

Lewis urged membership to continue to channel their energy into “a collective power,” going into negotiations. The contract isn’t up until June of next year, but the leadership hopes to put pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel in advance of the mayoral election in February.

“CPS may always be a hot mess,” Lewis wrote, “but with our due diligence, creativity, expertise and insights we can one day make this the strongest school district in the nation.”

Read Lewis’s full letter to teachers below.

Sisters and Brothers,

This week begins the new school year. May you each find success and new energy as you return to your classrooms and the profession you love.

As our new year begins, it is a time for us to renew our commitment to fighting for the schools our students and teachers deserve. Let us return to our Chicago Public Schools (CPS) classrooms with a renewed strength, laser focus and open hearts as we welcome our colleagues and students in this new season of growth and change.

As you know, I recently retired from CPS and therefore have resigned from my position as president of the Chicago Teachers Union. It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to serve in a leadership capacity and to join each of you on the battlefield for justice and equity in public education.

The decision to end my tenure was one that weighed heavily upon me and was done in consultation with my husband, family, friends and colleagues. Since taking office in 2010, this has been a constant fight against powerful forces and their myriad of allies that seek to destroy collective bargaining and rob our children of their futures. Yet, as great of an enemy as this system has been, I had no way of knowing that all of this was preparing me for the biggest foe of them all.

Yet, I am not afraid.

With any fight, clear vision and bravery are prerequisites of struggle. While I continue to restore my health, I encourage each of you to channel your energy into a collective power that moves our union forward and guarantees the wins we’ve secured—and the campaigns we have started will continue until every child has every resource needed to be successful.

In my fight against brain cancer, I am reminded through my faith that when storms come, the brave do not jump overboard. They do not abandon ship, nor do they panic. Even if the captain is down and storm clouds are gathering, the rest of the crew must steer the ship on its charted course.

As you enter your building, remember: We have a contract fight on our hands—and the racist, misogynistic, homophobic and elitist voices remain strong. Our enemies are banking on this transition in CTU leadership to confuse, conflate and co-opt our union. Do not let them.

Transitions are not meant to be easy. Change never is. However, I have worked side-by-side with Vice President Jesse Sharkey, who has assumed my responsibilities as president as laid out in the CTU Constitution, beginning when I was first diagnosed in 2014. Under his consistent leadership, the CTU will remain a focused, fighting union that protects the interests of its members and those we serve.

Any presidency can only be as strong as the rest of its leadership team. Continuity is important. That is why officers Michael Brunson and Maria Moreno remain valuable in their current roles of recording secretary and financial secretary in this administration. As Jesse’s role as president is formalized, the vice presidency now becomes vacant, and it is my hope that members will value the addition of CTU Political Director Stacy Davis Gates in that role.

Through our organizing, legislative and political efforts, the CTU has restored the pension levy, stopped the spread of non-unionized charter operations, and launched political campaigns that have sent educators Sue Garza, Brandon Johnson and Aaron Ortiz to public office. The CTU worked to reduce CPS’s gaping budget deficit, won back hundreds of millions of dollars from the mayor’s TIF slush fund, and fought off mismanagement and bank deals, charter companies and corruption. We successfully negotiated more than $10 MILLION for sustainable neighborhood public schools. Our political, organizing and communications model has been adopted by other labor organizations across the nation.

Even with these significant wins, there is still much more work to do. Let us channel our victories into renewed campaigns to ensure our careers are not threatened and that Chicago has an elected, representative school board.

Wages, benefits, and safe and collaborative working conditions are important to all of us and central to every contract campaign. But in a city rife with unemployment, poverty, and violence, so is ensuring that every student has access to a librarian, counselor, social worker, nurse, special education professional and the support services they need.

As I focus my attention on this next chapter of my life, I want each of you to remember that the detractors, naysayers and union busters will come. They will seek to take advantage of this moment in order to entice you to act against your own self-interests. However, if their offer does not make us stronger, if it doesn’t unite us, and doesn’t move our cause forward, then we must turn a blind eye to their schemes and keep our eyes on the prize.

CPS may always be a hot mess, but with our due diligence, creativity, expertise and insights we can one day make this the strongest school district in the nation.

Every teacher, paraprofessional and clinician who wears CTU red understands what this is about. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes said it best when he challenged us in a work he entitled, “Democracy,” in which he states:

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

Thank you all for your well-wishes, thoughts, and prayers. I love you all and I will see you soon.

Karen GJ Lewis, NBCT (Retired)
CTU President Emeritas

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.