Congratulations, Karen Lewis. Now What?

This week, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced that the upcoming union election is cancelled because President Karen Lewis is unopposed. Congratulations are due. President Lewis has been a phenomenal and charismatic leader mobilizing teachers and parents in support of her 2012 teacher strike, making her an instant folk hero to teachers nationwide. She would have been a formidable opponent to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the 2015 election if she had run. The question now is, what is her agenda? She was supportive enough of a contract proposal back in January to present it to her 47-member bargaining committee, only to have it unanimously rejected. The proposal included a guarantee of no layoffs, modest raises after accounting for pension and health care givebacks, restrictions on charter school growth and adjustments to the teacher evaluation system favored by the union. Now, with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the state of Illinois caught in a game of chicken and the money running out for the district, the options are increasingly dire. After central office layoffs and some school-based cuts, including a very small number of teachers, CPS had to borrow $725 million at punishing interest rates and furlough teachers for three days, just to make ends meet. The union responded with a one-day “strike” on April 1, costing students another day of learning. The district also faces a nearly $700 million pension payment on June 30. Without state help and with more borrowing unlikely, more teacher layoffs, rising class sizes and other cuts are inevitable next year. Pressure to declare bankruptcy will grow. Under bankruptcy, which requires a change in state law, teacher contracts are null and void and the district can get out from under its underfunded pension obligations. Neither the mayor nor CPS want bankruptcy but Gov. Bruce Rauner is openly encouraging it as part of a larger strategy to weaken union bargaining power. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see the Democratic-controlled legislature authorizing bankruptcy. The question is, will they have a choice? The other issue lurking in the shadows is an elected school board, which garnered overwhelming support in the 2015 mayoral election in a non-binding ballot referendum though it also requires a change in state law. One branch of the state legislature overwhelmingly passed it, while the other one insists they won’t call it. Which brings us back to President Lewis. Does she want to partner with CPS to protect kids, jobs and pensions by putting pressure on the governor to fairly fund Chicago schools, or does she want to pursue an elected school board, which puts her at odds with the mayor and the district and could pave a path to bankruptcy? As the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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