Reckless rhetoric – how CTU has become the roadblock to education reform in Chicago

Reckless rhetoric – how CTU has become the roadblock to education reform in Chicago

Karen Lewis basically accused the CPS board and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of racism.

Paul Kersey
Director of Labor Policy

Throughout their many recent fights with the Chicago Teachers Union, Chicago Public Schools administrators have consistently behaved like mature professionals.

The wisdom of the CPS school consolidation plan is debatable – but for every closing there is a rationale that points back to specific, measurable and relevant facts: this school’s enrollment has fallen by half during the last 10 years; that school lacks a yard for recess; another other school has consistently underperformed on standardized tests.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the CTU and its president, Karen Lewis, whose stream-of-consciousness lectures on the injustices of school closings are either astonishingly simplistic or completely disconnected from anything that really matters over the long term to parents with children in CPS.

Rather than trying to deal with the economic and academic challenges that CPS faces, Lewis spends much of her time making mountains out of molehills. Lewis is outraged that the district has not completely formulated a transportation and safety plan for students affected by school closures. Even if her accusation is true, parents and the district both have four months to make those plans. Switching schools may be an inconvenience, but it should not be an insurmountable obstacle.

At the same time, the CTU ignores current problems. Lewis is outraged that in the south and west sides of Chicago, children will have to navigate their way through turf controlled by different street gangs. But that is a challenge that many kids face right now – gang boundaries shift and there is no reason to believe that they match up well with current school assignments either. Students are already at risk of being caught up in gang violence. The new plan is unlikely to improve things on this score, but there is little reason to believe that the new school assignments will be any more dangerous.

The best thing that CPS can do to stabilize neighborhoods and combat violence in Chicago is provide the best possible education it can to its students. Keeping buildings open is secondary. The fact is that next year children in Chicago will go to different school buildings but they will have access to similar teachers and the same curriculum that they had before. There is a reasonable chance their new school will actually be a bit better. Over the long haul, schoolchildren will be no worse off and may even come out ahead.

Lewis is no more on point when she turns to race. The overwhelming majority of the students that will be reassigned to new schools are black. Based on this and not much else, Lewis basically accused the CPS board and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of racism. The mayor and board counter that it is black neighborhoods on the south and west sides that have lost the most population, hence the need to consolidate buildings there. Do Lewis and the CTU have different data? If they do, CTU hasn’t bothered to present it.

Racism is maybe the most serious accusation one can make in politics today. It’s a charge that shouldn’t be leveled without solid evidence of real hostility and harm being done. And Lewis has little proof of either.

As CTU president, Lewis has done little more than make unreasonable demands and wild accusations. CPS has been forced to contend with all of this on top of a stagnant economy and dangerous neighborhoods. CPS could do a much better job than it has in the past. It would help if the union’s leadership were partners rather than obstructionists.

Download the audio from Karen Lewis’ rally speech

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