How Karen Lewis’ own story follows the arc of Chicago’s contentious education history

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

This fall marks 55 years since a massive student boycott to protest segregation in Chicago schools, and six years since a strike aimed at improving conditions for teachers. A new book by University of Illinois at Chicago historian Elizabeth Todd-Breland examines that history that unites those two events — and how that history relates to the racial politics of education policy change in Chicago. This excerpt is from the epilogue of “A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s.”

In the fall of 1968, a black student boycotted Kenwood High School on the South Side of Chicago for several consecutive Mondays. She did not act alone but was part of a movement of tens of thousands of black students at high schools across the city.

These were not spontaneous walkouts. Her father drove her and her friends to and from organizing meetings where the students outlined their demands for more black teachers and administrators, the incorporation of black history into the curriculum, and improved facilities at predominantly black schools in the city. Her parents worried that she would be arrested but encouraged her and supported her activism. Collectively, these boycotts nearly shut down several predominantly black schools in the city and compelled the superintendent of schools to concede to a number of the students’ demands.

In 1968 this lone student’s voice would not necessarily have stood out among the many young voices of protest in the city. In the 2010s, however, it would be difficult to miss her. This high school student was Karen Lewis (née Jennings), future president of the Chicago Teachers Union and the face and voice of the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike that once again brought the city’s education system to a halt and elicited concessions from previously intractable city authorities.

Karen Lewis’s political trajectory maps onto much of the history documented in this book. Her parents were black migrants to Chicago who became CPS teachers. While not on the front lines of black teacher organizing, her parents were part of a generation of black educators who struggled against racist barriers to certification and leveraged the hard-earned benefits of unionization for employment gains.

Lewis attended Kenwood, a high school born of desegregation debates during the mid-1960s and founded as an intentionally integrated school. But Lewis’s protests at Kenwood in 1968 were for Black Power, not integration. 

When she first started teaching chemistry in CPS in the 1980s, Lewis admired [Chicago’s first black Mayor] Harold Washington and CTU President Jacqueline Vaughn as leaders and symbols of black political power, but she wasn’t particularly involved in the union. Lewis’s political trajectory underscores the permeability of different black political ideologies and the importance of understanding black political perspectives historically, intergenerationally, and relationally, rather than oppositionally and out of context.

Lewis benefited from the earlier struggles of black teachers, but the bulk of her teaching career during the 1990s and 2000s coincided with the decline in black teacher organizing. Lewis worked at two selective enrollment schools: majority-white Lane Technical High School on the North Side and majority-black King College Preparatory High School on the South Side. She supported the idea of using magnet and selective enrollment schools to promote integration but also acknowledged the failure of that strategy.

Mayor Richard M. Daley had brokered labor peace with the CTU while stratifying public schooling with new charter, selective enrollment, and magnet schools. In 2008, dismayed by increased privatization and attacks on public education, Lewis started attending reading groups, speaking out at Board of Education meetings, and working to restrict charter school expansion with a new CTU caucus, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. Lewis recalled that working with this group “reminded me of my student activism days in the sixties, so I felt like I was right back to where I started from. It was just like this full circle thing.”

The emergent Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, initially organized by white leftist teachers, participated in citywide progressive coalitions and organized alongside parent and community groups across the city that were pushing back against school closings, the proliferation of charter schools, and issues related to racial and economic inequality that impacted CPS families, the majority of which were low-income black and Latinx families.

In 2010, CTU members voted to replace the by-then complacent CTU leadership with Karen Lewis and the other members of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. This signaled a renewed commitment to the type of community organizing forged by Lillie Peoples and other black educators during the 1960s and 1970s. The insurgency of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators developed from the ground up with teachers, parents, and community members working together. Teachers were once again organizing in the communities where their students lived, fighting back against city education reform plans that disproportionately impacted black communities.

As a primary antagonist of the corporatist regime in the city, Lewis’s trajectory is firmly situated in Chicago’s long history of black protest politics and community organizing. However, running parallel to this history is the formidable history of more top-down autocratic political and corporate power.

Nationally, Republicans and Democrats have come together to support neoliberal education reform policies. These policies encouraged reforms that prioritized competition, privatization, school closings and “turnarounds,” charter school expansion, and a reliance on standardized testing. Democratic president Barack Obama, a Chicagoan and the first black president of the United States, ran on a platform of change in 2008. However, in the realm of education he largely advanced the policies of his predecessors, nationally and locally: Republican President George W. Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind law at the federal level and Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Renaissance 2010 education reform policies in Chicago.

Together these policies opened the door for high-stakes testing, school closings, and the expansion of “school choice” through charter schools. Obama appointed Arne Duncan, CPS CEO and Paul Vallas’s successor, to serve as the U.S. secretary of education, further elevating Chicago’s corporate-style education policies as a model for education reform efforts nationally.

Duncan oversaw Obama’s major education initiative, Race to the Top, which mirrored on the national level many of the policies that Daley and Duncan had administered in Chicago. Race to the Top required states looking for federal education funds to compete, and emphasized new standards and accountability measures, charter school expansion, and test-based assessment of teachers and schools. While Chicago policies and officials contributed to the Obama administration’s national political agenda, Obama administration officials also cycled back to Chicago—most significantly Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s White House chief of staff.

Buoyed by Obama’s blessing, Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago in 2011. Emanuel furthered Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 plans, embracing corporate education reform and “school choice” plans that opened new charter schools and “turned around,” consolidated, or closed more than 150 public schools, including the closure of approximately 50 schools in 2013— at the time the largest intentional mass closure of schools in recent U.S. history.

In engineering the school closures, Emanuel argued that the logic of corporate reorganization and the market necessitated right-sizing measures to remedy the city’s failing school system. However, Emanuel and his school officials toggled inconsistently between justifications for closing schools based on under-enrollment or “under-utilization” and closings because of academic underperformance.

As had been the case for decades, black students, parents, and communities were dissatisfied with the status quo in many of their under-resourced neighborhood schools. However, they questioned why the schools had to be closed instead of improved. The CTU and community members also questioned definitions of under-enrollment that assessed full utilization at over thirty students to a classroom. In accounts by city and school officials, the history and policies that displaced and depopulated black communities and produced under-enrolled schools were erased.

Adapted from A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago by Elizabeth Todd-Breland. Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Todd-Breland. Published by the University of North Carolina Press.  Used by permission of the publisher. 

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.