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The Chicago Teachers Union votes on its leadership Friday. What’s at stake?

Chicago Teachers Union members stand with their backs to the camera, wearing red jackets with the union’s name.

Teachers marched through the streets near City Hall during the 11th day of a teachers strike on October 31, 2019 in Chicago. The Chicago Teachers Union is voting on its leadership this week.

Scott Heins / Getty Images

Chicago Teachers Union members are voting on their leadership this week — a high-stakes decision at a challenging juncture for the country’s public educators. 

The district is navigating a faltering recovery from the pandemic, at a time when educators here and across the country report feeling stressed and demoralized. Meanwhile, a mayoral election and a transition to an elected school board loom during the next CTU leadership’s three-year term, with the potential to redraw an often combative relationship with the city. 

The incumbent Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators, or CORE, slate will face two challengers in Friday’s election: Members First and Respect, Educate, Advocate, and Lead, or REAL.

CORE has steered the teachers union for more than a decade, reshaping it into a powerful progressive force that often set a national agenda for urban educators. Following protracted standoffs with the district and city, it won a groundbreaking contract in 2019 and some of the country’s strongest COVID protocols in 2021, spelled out in an agreement that became a model for other districts. Stacy Davis Gates, the current vice president, is running for the top job after Jesse Sharkey announced earlier this spring he would not seek the post again.

Members First, led by school psychologist Mary Esposito-Usterbowski, has criticized the current leadership for overreaching on social issues not directly connected to the classroom instead of staying focused on more traditional concerns such as prep time and compensation. That caucus has also argued the union has been too fast to strike or refuse to work in person, pointing to January’s showdown with the mayor’s office. That work stoppage produced much more modest changes to safety protocols, at the cost of four days of pay for teachers and five missed days of school for students. 

The second challenger slate, Respect, Educate, Advocate, and Lead, or REAL, led by Darnell Dowd, a seventh grade teacher at William H. Ray Elementary School, has said the union must forge ahead on a more expansive social justice agenda. But they have also criticized the handling of the January labor action. They say current leadership has become disconnected from its rank-and-file members and spent too much on supporting political candidates without giving members a full accounting. 

The May 20 election is being closely watched by unions in other districts. 

“The CTU since CORE took over has become a bellwether for other large urban teachers unions across the country,” said Bradley Marianno, a professor of education policy and leadership at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “Nationally, teachers unions are looking to this election as a litmus test.” 

After two years of intense disruption for educators, the tension between a more expansive, politically engaged stance and a return to bread-and-butter issues is palpable across the country, Marianno said. The leadership of the New York City teachers union — in the more traditional labor mold — just won reelection after a progressive caucus calling for a broader agenda tried to unseat it. But, says Marianno, the CTU election might more decisively tip the scales. 

The runup to the Friday vote has been tense at times. Union leadership sued a former advisor to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Lisa Schneider Fabes, arguing that a social media campaign backing Members First amounted to illegal outside meddling in a union election. Members First said it did not seek or embrace that help. 

If no slate gets a simple majority of votes, the union will hold a runoff vote. Results are expected late Friday or early Saturday morning.

Chalkbeat Chicago asked the three slates four key questions about their priorities and vision for the CTU’s future. Some responses have been edited for length.

Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators, or CORE

CORE slate members opted for a virtual interview. 

What would be your top priorities at the CTU’s helm?

Stacy Davis Gates: Many of our school communities do not have robust and well-resourced fine arts programs, student governments, and sports programs. Children don’t come to school because they’re in love with calculus or physics. They come to school because it is the center of their social life, and there are opportunities for them to develop. What CPS, under mayoral control, has done is whittle away at everything except for standardized tests. 

It is important for this union to make schools whole, meaning, we need more than just reading, writing and arithmetic. Going forward, this union will be fighting for co-curricular and extracurricular activities. The union will be fighting for more revenue to come into our school community in order to upgrade our facilities and build better facilities. 

We dealt a blow in a coalition victory to standardized testing, prohibiting it for pre-Kindergarten to second grade. We need to return to a time when teachers have the opportunity to explore and take risks in the classroom. 

It’s also important that student-based budgeting is ameliorated. Schools on the South and West sides are deprioritized because they don’t have students packed into every single corner. We need something that looks more like evidence-based funding at the state level.  

After two pandemic years that severely tested educators and students, Chicago Public Schools confront both new and longstanding challenges, from shrinking enrollment to staffing shortages to heightened student mental health needs. How do you see the union’s role in the district’s ongoing recovery?

SDG: President Joe Biden sent the largest infusion of public federal money to Chicago Public Schools than any other time in history, and that money is not being spent. It’s not being spent because we haven’t forced their hand. When resources are allocated into our school communities, it is only because we have organized in coalition with families, students, community leaders, and community organizations to make it happen. At Dyett (High School for the Arts), Chicago Teachers Union members — actual classroom teachers and paraprofessionals — held a hunger strike to save their school. The 2019 strike was able to secure a nurse and a social worker in every school. 

Under CORE leadership, you are seeing the very things that community folk have long cried for. Now, we will have an elected school board — the first in the 150-year history of this district. Now, you have local school councils with more authority. 

Do you see a path to a more collaborative relationship with district leadership and the mayor’s office? 

SDG: Our purpose is to agree that the Chicago Public School system has to be resourced, respected, and that the people who both attend the school district and work in the school district have to be treated humanely. Now, if we can agree on that then the forecast is sunnier. But if we cannot agree on the humanity of those that inhabit our school buildings, both the worker, the student, and all of our families, then where is the point of collaboration? Under mayoral control, the humanity of the people who are in the Chicago Public School system has not been regarded. 

Chicago faces a mayoral election and a transition to an elected school board. What is the potential impact on the city’s educators and students, and do you see a role for the union in those votes?

Jackson Potter, vice presidential candidate: This gets to the crux of why it’s important to have a multi-dimensional strategy to advance educational justice in a city that incorporates both enforcement of  future agreements, but also in the political arena. So much is determined by these various levels of government, including the school board. They modify the state laws around our evaluation, and can make them more strict. They can add assessments that take up instructional time. And they can impose policies like student-based budgeting, which we’re now dealing with where the most trauma that we’re seeing in the system is in the schools that are facing drops in enrollment.

Instead of flooding these schools with resources, social workers, mental health professionals, and parent mentors, which is the logical thing in this moment, schools like Zapata and other schools on the South and West sides are getting their budgets overwhelmingly cut. If we elected a school board that was more sympathetic and reflective of our school communities, they could on the next day suspend the student-based budgeting formula and make for a different system of funding positions. 

Members First

Esposito-Usterbowski, the slate’s presidential candidate, provided written responses to questions.

What would be your top priorities at the CTU’s helm? 

  • $750 for supplies and a streamlined process for reimbursements 
  • Increase in pay to surpass rising inflation
  • Strengthen benefits including expanded vision and dental
  • Bring back the 30-minute morning prep
  • Hire more field representatives to improve contract enforcement and better serve members
  • Smaller classroom sizes
  • Change residency requirements
  • Ensure all CPS work is pensionable 
  • Improve cleanliness in schools 
  • Create a strike fund 

After two pandemic years that severely tested educators and students, Chicago Public Schools confronts both new and longstanding challenges, from shrinking enrollment to staffing shortages to heightened student mental health needs. How do you see the union’s role in the district’s ongoing recovery? 

We believe our union has to be completely focused on delivering for union members and improving our schools for CPS students and families. When CTU focuses on non-educational issues, it weakens our ability to do what our union was set up to do. That is why CTU members want change.

Do you see a path to a more collaborative relationship with district leadership and the mayor’s office? 

We all know Stacy Davis Gates’ relationship with city leaders is toxic. She simply will not be able to deliver much for us in negotiations. We need change to the CTU so we can have a fresh start with city leaders and start getting more for our members.

Chicago faces a mayoral election and a transition to an elected school board. What is the potential impact on the city’s educators and students, and do you see a role for the union in those votes?

We want to work collaboratively with all stakeholders to deliver for union members, CPS students and the families we serve. We believe we can better do that with a fresh start.

Respect, Educate, Advocate, and Lead, or REAL

The slate’s candidates provided written responses to questions.

What would be your top priorities at the CTU’s helm?

The January work action exposed how fractured the union is. Only 55% of members voted with the leadership to end the walkout. CTU normally votes in the 70-80% range. We must regain trust with our members and communities. We cannot be so convinced that we’re right that we stop listening to our members. We need to listen and engage. We need to prioritize making our union whole again and recommit to the mantra that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Unifying our members will be our top priority. REAL has campaigned on a pledge of financial transparency, democracy, and member-driven unionism. We build trust with members when we show them how we spend their money. Members voluntarily pay PAC dues when they trust the process and are respected.  Our members will only value political initiatives and endorsements when they drive the process.

REAL will:

  • have staggered six-year term limits for leadership so officers will work under the contracts they negotiate;
  • hire more field representatives with a staffed hotline;
  • allocate resources to expose, remediate and monitor bullying principals;
  • help members elect a delegate in every school;
  • fight to end REACH and student-based budgeting;
  • leverage donations to candidates with member engagement and door knocking; and 
  • endorse candidates based on members’ vision of who fights for our schools and educators.

We can never outspend the billionaires, but we can out-organize them. REAL will return democracy to the Chicago Teachers Union. All union members with diverse viewpoints will be invited to be active in all union committees regardless of their caucus. No member will ever be disparaged, as is the practice now, when they disagree with leadership and an independent parliamentarian will ensure that all House of Delegates meetings are run democratically.

After two pandemic years that severely tested educators and students, Chicago Public Schools confront both new and longstanding challenges, from shrinking enrollment to staffing shortages to heightened student mental health needs. How do you see the union’s role in the district’s ongoing recovery?

REAL will fight to end School-Based Budgeting (SBB), which assigns the same funding to each student regardless of the student’s needs. Schools with higher student poverty, homelessness, and family instability need more funding and more staff but they get the same amount as less challenged schools. SBB has had a disastrous impact on neighborhood schools, especially on the South and West sides. In addition, CTU veteran teachers and staff are more expensive to hire so principals are unable to hire them because budgets are cut to the bone.

We must replace SBB with an evidence-based model, which ensures student equity and member security in our buildings. This approach, which the state of Illinois has offered since 2017, is much more equitable. Funds are sent to schools based on each student’s actual need, such as assistive technology or wrap-around social services to address our students’ mental health needs.  

Under REAL’s leadership, we will fight until we have fully funded neighborhood schools, with excellent learning conditions for every child.  We will finally achieve, as our union has advocated since 2012, “the schools that Chicago students deserve.” 

Do you see a path to a more collaborative relationship with district leadership and the mayor’s office? 

We don’t have to like or agree with the mayor, but we need an effective relationship to get the things our schools need. REAL leadership will seek an effective relationship with the CPS leadership and the Mayor.  We’ve experienced abuse and witnessed steadily deteriorating school conditions for far too long, though, to believe Chicago’s schools will be improved through pleasant conversation alone.  

Chicago faces a mayoral election and a transition to an elected school board. What is the potential impact on the city’s educators and students, and do you see a role for the union in those votes?

REAL’s political approach seeks power by mobilizing our members, instead of just writing big checks like our present CTU officers.  REAL will listen to our members and get their buy-in on endorsing political campaigns.  REAL will share all PAC information, and our PAC committee will make the endorsement and donation decisions. Then we mobilize our members – knocking on doors and making calls to get pro-teacher, pro-student, pro-union candidates elected to the Chicago school board.

Finally, every single school board in Illinois will be elected.  Many parents and community groups fought alongside CTU for this important change and we will lock arms again to make sure the entire city is equally represented.

An elected school board is a victory, but it won’t solve all our problems. As always, our power lies in our members.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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