Next Chicago mayor needs to put students ahead of politics

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
February 13, 2023

Next Chicago mayor needs to put students ahead of politics

The incoming mayor will inherit a troubled Chicago Public Schools system, a strike-happy Chicago Teachers Union with an expiring contract, and a transition to a fully elected school board. Whoever is elected must put kids first.

Chicago’s mayor will face plenty of issues during the upcoming term, with crime and city finances topping the list, but the city’s troubled public school system promises to raise blood pressure and lead to sleepless nights.

Whoever is elected faces a Chicago Public Schools district with declining enrollment and academic scores, contentious negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union over a new contract and the transition from an appointed to a fully elected school board. All those issues could have lasting effects on the city’s nearly 330,000 school children.

The next mayor needs to safeguard the city’s future by helping its children thrive, and that includes:

  • Negotiating a CTU contract that places students above politics, including the removal of provisions that prohibit students from taking advantage of charter schools or other educational options
  • Appointing school board members who value student achievement, parental rights and public transparency
  • Advocating for policies that protect taxpayers from increased spending that has failed to strengthen student achievement

The incoming mayor faces a troubled public school system

Enrollment in CPS is tanking, with nearly 90,000 students – primarily black and Hispanic – leaving the district between 2010-2022.

Yet despite spending 55% more on 20% fewer students since 2010, student proficiency is abysmal. At the end of the past school year, 80% of 11th graders could not read or do math at grade level. Similarly, 80% of third through eighth graders could not read at grade level, and 85% could not do math.

Low-income students fared even worse, with 86% of third through eighth graders failing to read at grade level, and 91% unable to show proficiency in math.

On top of that, nearly half of CPS students were chronically absent in the 2021-2022 school year.

The next mayor must prioritize students and their educations. Unfortunately, whoever that is will likely face hostility when negotiating a new contract with the CTU.

The district’s contract with CTU – one of the nation’s most militant government unions – expires in 2024

“We’re a union that fights the boss. That was true for Daley, it’s true for Rahm [Emanuel], it’s true for Lightfoot. It’s going to be true for whoever’s mayor next.”

That’s what then-CTU President Jesse Sharkey told the Chicago Tribune after a work stoppage in 2021. It was one of five times the union has walked out on families since 2012. The union has walked out three times just during Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s watch.

The current CTU leadership, known as the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, has come under fire from other CTU members for its overt political actions and frequent strikes. Another caucus within CTU – the Members First caucus – states CTU’s reputation has been “greatly tarnished” under CORE leadership.

“The current leadership of the CTU sees work stoppages and strikes as the first step, and not the last one,” Members First’s website stated before the 2022 CTU leadership election.

A January 2022 walkout resulted in over 330,000 schoolchildren missing five days of school. Parents were notified of the walkout after 11 p.m. on a school night – leaving them just hours to develop a back-up plan as most folks were asleep – after the union decided not to show up.

That shut-down followed canceled classes in January 2021, when CTU refused to return to school for in-person learning. Before that there was the 2019 strike, which resulted in 11 days of missed school. An illegal strike in 2016 cost students another day of school. And a strike in 2012 left kids out of school for seven days of instruction.

In short, strikes have been CTU’s go-to “bargaining” tool for years. The union even takes credit for triggering multiple teachers’ union strikes around the nation in the past decade.

What exactly is CTU fighting for? It seeks many nontraditional contract provisions, such as defunding police and banks and “affordable housing.” The union also fights against giving parents and students other options to traditional city schools. Its last two contracts have included moratoriums on charter school growth. It is also fighting to kill Illinois’ only school choice program.

None of which bodes well for CPS students when the current contract expires in 2024. The next mayor must be prepared to face a militant CTU leadership and negotiate a contract that puts students above the union’s political agenda.

The mayor will also have to navigate a transition into a hybrid school board

The next mayor will also face a historic changing of the guard as CPS transitions from the current seven-member school board, which is appointed by the mayor, to a 21-member elected board by 2027.

Given CTU’s history of pouring money into state and local campaigns – including funding two of every three current aldermen on the Chicago City Council – the school board is likely to become another battleground for union political control.

A 2021 law lays out the transition process. In 2024, 10 members will be elected to four-year terms, with the mayor appointing the remaining 10 members and board president to two-year terms. Then in 2026, voters will elect 10 members and a board president, forming the first fully-elected school board of 21 members by 2027.

In the meantime, the mayor will have the responsibility of appointing members who look out for students’ best interests.

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