CHICAGO - Angered by devastating budget cuts, threatened layoffs and school privatization, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members voted in a new leadership June 10. New president Karen Lewis immediately vowed to fight any attempt by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to layoff 2,000 teachers and increase class sizes to 35 students to deal with a projected $600 million budget deficit.
Lewis's slate, Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), won nearly 60% of the vote in a runoff against incumbent President Marilyn Stewart and her slate. CORE swept all top officer and vice president slots. After the election both Stewart and Lewis called for a united union.
"I want to congratulate Karen Lewis and her entire CORE team, and want them to know they can count on me for any assistance I can offer as they take on what will be one of the toughest challenges in the 73-year history of the Chicago Teachers Union," Stewart said. "For when all is said and done, this election was never about Karen or me. It was about the 32,000 union members whose futures and well-being are now being threatened by an uncaring and insensitive Chicago Public Schools system."
The unity of the union was tested immediately when CPS Board of Education held an emergency meeting to deal with the mounting budget crisis. Teachers picketed before going inside where they testified against the Board giving authority to school's CEO Ron Huberman's plan to allow class sizes to rise to 35 and impose cuts in other areas. The Board also agreed to a scheduled 4% pay increase, but this was seen as a maneuver to prevent a strike by teachers. Big business interests represented by the Civic Federation are egging Huberman to rescind the wage increase and confront the teachers union.
However, Huberman did demand concessions by the union. He told the Board, "The reality of the situation is that if concessions are not made, we will have to lay off teachers and raise class sizes." Huberman and the Board are trying to back teachers into a corner and pit them against parents and students.
The CTU says it will let teachers decide on the 4% raise, but maintain there are other ways to solve the crisis and demanded CPS open up its books.
In her victory speech Lewis said, "Today marks the beginning of the end of scapegoating educators for all the social ills that our children, families and schools struggle against every day (and) the beginning of a fight for true transparency in our educational policy. This election shows the unity of 30,000 educators standing strong to put business in its place - out of our schools."
Lewis said corporate America sees K-12 public education as a $380 billion trust, which until the last 15 years it hadn't had a sizeable piece of. She blasted Mayor Richard M. Daley's school reform in which scores of schools have been closed and reopened as charter schools, as not an education plan, but a business plan.
Lewis's victory was also a repudiation of President Obama's proposed federal policy for education reform which is based on the Chicago model administered by current Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Alarmed by the potential for massive loss of jobs of teachers and other public workers, President Obama implored Congress on June 12 to pass emergency aid to the states and cities to prevent layoffs. Obama said already 84,000 public workers had lost their jobs and 300,000 teachers are threatened with layoffs. Legislation has been blocked by Republicans and conservative Democrats that would have provided $50 billion in funding.
Lewis and other speakers at the Board meeting called upon Daley to release hundreds of millions of dollars that has been accumulated by the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) accounts. These entities have siphoned off property tax money destined for public education into a fund distributed by Daley for economic development that often ends up in the pockets of his cronies. Each year $245 million in education funding is lost in this way.
The new CTU leadership is calling for reforming the way education is funded in Illinois. Presently, 60% of funds comes from property taxes and 30% from state funding, which they say should be reversed to provide equitable education for every child.