Illinois Poised To Strip Rahm Emanuel’s Control Over Chicago Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 7, 2017.
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For more than 20 years, the mayor of Chicago has had the power to appoint not only the CEO of the nation’s third-largest school system, but also the entire school board that governs it. But after years of protests from Chicago residents, the Illinois state legislature may finally end this controversial governance structure, potentially setting the stage for much larger public school shifts in the Windy City.

Chicago used to have an elected school board, just like every other school district in Illinois, and like more than 95 percent of school districts nationwide. But in 1995, as a reform strategy for the state’s largest and poorest district, state lawmakers passed legislation granting Chicago’s then-Mayor Richard M. Daley the authority to appoint his city’s school leadership. Rahm Emanuel succeeded Daley as mayor in 2011, and took control over Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Supporters of mayoral control—a strategy also instituted in New York City in 2002 and Washington, D.C., in 2007—say that challenging the status quo of chronically underperforming urban school districts is easier if one elected official has expansive decision-making power, rather a divided school board sharing it.

The mayor can also theoretically better leverage the school system with other governmental agencies, the private sector, and civic institutions. Researchers find that cities with diffuse civic capacity tend to be less effective in promoting urban school improvement than cities that can take coordinated civic action. Mayoral-control supporters also argue that it can increase political accountability for schools’ performance: School board elections have notoriously low turnout, and it can be easier for voters to hold a highly visible politician responsible for the success or failure of a district.

Yet critics of mayoral control say it is the opposite of democratic and reduces the public’s ability to shape their schools and local communities. The Chicago Teachers Union, a powerful critic of the Emanuel administration, argues that while Chicago’s school board “is composed primarily of corporate executives,” the CPS’s predominantly poor, black, and brown student body come from communities that have no say in running their schools.

In 2015, Chicago residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a nonbinding referendum to switch back to an elected school board. The Chicago Tribunereported then that “perhaps no issue in Chicago politics has been more polarizing in the last four years than Emanuel’s handling of CPS.” As public dissatisfactionwith Emanuel’s education policies grew, so did the momentum to end mayoral control.

In 2016, a bill to end mayoral control passed in the Illinois House, but never came to a vote in the Senate. The House sponsor, Representative Robert Martwick of Chicago, said that the absence of an elected school board has “eliminated democracy” in his city.

Martwick vowed to make a more concerted effort to get his Senate colleagues on board this year, and was successful. On May 26, the House again overwhelmingly approved a bill to end mayoral control, and last week, the Senate passed a similar bill, which would create a Chicago school board with 15 elected seats. (Chicago’s school board currently has seven members.) The House and Senate are expected to pass a version they both can agree on later this month.

Chicago has for years been a high-profile city for national education reformers. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Arne Duncan, who had been serving as CPS’s CEO, to serve as his first secretary of education. Duncan brought to the federal level some controversial school reform strategies he had promoted in Chicago, such as linking student test scores to teacher pay.

Emanuel, who served as Obama’s first White House chief of staff, also launched an ambitious school reform effort when he took over as mayor, one that included robust charter school expansion, school closures, and longer school days. Opposition to Emanuel’s policies helped mobilize the Chicago Teachers Union to launch in 2012 their first strike in 25 years, a seven-day effort that influencedunion strategy across the country, and Emanuel’s policies continue to attract national attention. This year, his administration announced a new graduation requirement found nowhere else in the country: CPS seniors must now prove they have post-high school plans, such as going to college, getting a job, or joining the military.

Emanuel and CPS officials have testified against ending mayoral control, and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner said last year that he opposes Chicago reverting to an elected school board. But even if Rauner vetoes such a bill, Illinois lawmakers have enough support to override his veto.

Chicago isn’t the first city to bounce between mayoral and electoral control. In 1999, Michigan’s state lawmakers stripped power from Detroit’s elected school board, and empowered Detroit’s then-Mayor Dennis Archer to appoint the school district’s leadership. But in 2004, Detroit residents voted to return district authority to a locally elected school board.

Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University, notes that Michigan state lawmakers had much less confidence in Kwame Kilpatrick, Archer’s successor, which was a significant factor in Detroit going back to an elected school board. Similarly, Illinois lawmakers’ worsening relationship with Emanuel is playing a role in the decision over Chicago’s school governance.

“The state is a key actor here,” says Henig. “The legislature can either make this happen or prevent it from happening. If the [Michigan] legislature had trusted Kilpatrick, they wouldn’t have necessarily let it go back to an elected board. As it often happens, the personal relationships of the mayors with the legislature are a big part of the story.”

This same dynamic has played out in New York, where state lawmakers granted former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg six-year terms of control over the nation’s largest public school system. By contrast, current Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected in 2014, has had a much rockier relationship with the legislature, and lawmakers have only granted him one-year extensions of mayoral control, leading to tense annual fights between the city and the state.

If the Illinois legislature approves a compromise bill this month, Chicago’s change in school governance might not take effect for another six years. But Henig says the bill’s passage would still likely lead to some “immediate changes” in Chicago; for example, how parents and teachers mobilize to fight current policies.

Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, says that painting the fight over mayoral control as “some grand philosophical crusade” exaggerates the stakes of the debate. He notes that the public doesn’t say it’s a crisis of democracy when a mayor appoints a police chief, or when the president appoints the attorney general.

“They’re both democratic models; it’s just a question of how much authority you want to give the mayor,” Hess says.

Henig agrees, noting that parents and teachers tend to cast a disproportionate number of votes in the low-turnout school board elections. “When someone says one [model] is more democratic than the other, that’s just rhetorical posturing,” he says. “There’s a pro-democratic argument for either one.”

Teacher Unions Are ‘Bargaining for the Common Good’

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 16, 2016.
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This week, the Los Angeles school board voted to approve a new bargaining agreement with UTLA, the city’s teachers union. Local community organizations—like Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, InnerCity Struggle, and the Advancement Project—hailed the “groundbreaking” agreement for directing more resources towards students in high-needs schools. Some specific items UTLA bargained for included hiring a Pupil Services and Attendance counselor for high-poverty high schools, and hiring a new teacher for the 55 most needy elementary schools in order to reduce class size. Union members voted overwhelmingly in support of this new contract a week earlier.

“We commend UTLA’s innovative leadership in leveraging its bargaining power to deliver real and impactful investments for low income communities of color,” said John Kim, the Advancement Project’s executive director, in a statement.

UTLA’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, said in an interview that his union sees collective bargaining as an important tool available to fight for equity and justice. “A lot of people consider teacher union contract negotiations to be about narrower issues like salaries, benefits, and work rules—and all of those are important and we deal with those—but we’re using these agreements to expand what the union goes to the table for.” Caputo-Pearl says UTLA can ultimately be a vehicle to push for collaborative policy alongside community organizations. “We’re bargaining for the common good,” he declared.

This idea of “bargaining for the common good”—and working in partnership with local allies—is not a new idea for labor unions, but its potential has never been fully realized, and past efforts have not gone deep enough. One major obstacle has been that labor law tries to limit unions to bargaining just over issues of wages and benefits.

“Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer.

But now, partly because of the historic action the Chicago Teachers Union took in 2012, when its members went on strike not just for themselves, but also for increased public services for the broader community, more and more unions have started to reconsider their fundamental roles and responsibilities. By expanding their bargaining demands beyond wages and benefits, unions are recognizing that they can more fully support, and engage their community partners—and get those community groups to support them in return.

“I think there’s a growing feeling that if you operate within the confines of the law, you restrict the things that potentially give you power,” says Lerner. “We have to be willing to go beyond what the law allows.”

In 2014, leaders from public sector unions and community organizations gathered at Georgetown University for a national conference, entitled “Bargaining for the Common Good,” aimed at charting this new path forward. Writing in Dissent, Joseph A. McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown, said that three distinct priorities emerged from the proceedings: using the bargaining process as a way to challenge the relationships between government and the private-sector; working with community allies to create new, shared goals that help advance both worker and citizen power; and recognizing militancy and collective action will likely be necessary if workers and citizens are to reduce inequality and strengthen democracy.

The time had come, in sum, to politicize bargaining.

A burst of activity followed the Georgetown conference. “It’s been amazing to see how many unions, community groups, and people have adopted the ‘bargaining for common good’ frame and language,” says Lerner.

This past December in Minneapolis, a coalition of unions and community groups brought 2,000 people together to craft a collective agenda for social justice. “Participants highlighted the immense control wielded by a dozen huge corporations, including U.S. Bank, Target, and Wells Fargo, over Minnesota’s economy,” wrote McCartin, and “agreed to collaborate on an array of interlocking campaigns and direct actions in 2016.” Since then, the groups have already successfully pushed for paid sick leave in Minneapolis, and similar ordinances are on the horizon in Saint Paul and Duluth. Groups that can endorse candidates are also working together “with an eye toward building independent political power and wielding greater influence in state elections,” says Dan McGrath of TakeAction Minnesota.

Last summer in Seattle, teachers went on strike for five days—their first strike against the district in 30 years—winning not only cost-of-living increases, but also a guarantee for daily recess for all elementary school students, and the creation of “equity committees” to address the disproportionate discipline of black and brown students.

In Saint Paul, the teachers union began to rethink collective bargaining as far back as 2013, convening regular meetings with parents and community members to formulate a shared vision. When the school district refused to negotiate with the union over their community-driven proposals, insisting that teachers could only bargain on matters related to wages and benefits, the union stood its ground.

Teachers held “walk-ins,” launched social media campaigns, and threatened to go on strike. In the end, teachers won expanded preschool programming, reduced class sizes, reduced testing, and established more equitable access to nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers. “I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the [union],” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the former Saint Paul teachers union president. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.”

Ricker now serves as executive vice-president for the American Federation of Teachers, but the work she started in Saint Paul continues. This year the union negotiated a new contract, filled with more community-oriented provisions, such as increased funding for alternatives to punitive discipline policies.

“For too many years we just dealt with the problems we saw from within the walls of our classroom, but now we understand that our contract is the most powerful document we have to improve the learning conditions for our students,” says Denise Rodriguez, the current Saint Paul local president, in an interview.

Caputo-Pearl cites the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a network that formed in 2014 comprising ten national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, as a key factor helping to drive this labor shift. “They’ve helped us reframe the conversation around bargaining and move this process forward,” he says.

Indeed, the effort is growing.

Last month, the NEA and the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers organized a two-day conference for teacher union locals across the Northeast region, focused on bargaining for the common good. It was the first geographic gathering of its kind. Participants explored how to bargain for issues like adequate nutrition for children, strong public libraries, longer recess, and smaller class sizes. A host of community organizations came, as well as representatives from the Seattle and Chicago teachers locals, who spoke about their own “common good” organizing.

“The members loved hearing about unions being on the offense, rather than the defense,” says Lerner.

“We offered locals a chance to think more deeply about their upcoming contract negotiations,” says Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing. “We’re really watching these ‘a ha’ light bulb moments happen for members when they realize that bargaining can once again be a powerful tool for the issues most prevalent in our lives.”

Charged with Firing Teachers for Organizing, a Chicago Charter Network Settles

Originally published in the American Prospect on January 12, 2016.
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The National Labor Relations Board finalized a settlement agreement this week between Urban Prep Academies, an all-male charter network in Chicago, and more than a dozen Urban Prep teachers who were fired abruptly back in June. The firings came less than a month after a majority of teachers at Urban Prep voted to unionize with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS). Urban Prep will pay over $250,000 in back wages and severance to 13 fired teachers, and two of the fired teachers were able to return to work on Monday. The others, who already had taken new jobs elsewhere, waived their right to reinstatement and settled for back pay.

Back in June, the union responded to the firings by filing two unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. One alleged that Urban Prep fired three teachers for their union activism; the second charged Urban Prep with failing to bargain with the union over all the teachers’ terminations. Educators, parents, and community members organized protests, urging Urban Prep to rehire the teachers.

Urban Prep’s COO, Evan Lewis, said earlier this summer that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

However, the NLRB launched an investigation into the situation, and on November 20, the board issued a complaint, finding that one teacher was fired for union activity and that Urban Prep failed to meet their legal obligations by not bargaining over the teachers’ firings. The NLRB scheduled a hearing for January 13, which has now been cancelled since Urban Prep decided to settle.

“We’re glad we were able to settle the charges rather than having to continue a long legal fight, because if Urban Prep had lost at the hearing they could have appealed,” says Carlos Fernandez, an organizer with ChiACTS. “These kinds of charges can take years to settle, so [resolving this] in just a little over six months is pretty good.”

The teachers at Urban Prep have been meeting regularly with their employer since September to work out the terms of their first contract; the union says they’ve made “significant progress.”There are currently 29 other unionized charter schools in Chicago, and a growing number nationwide.

The total amount that Urban Prep has agreed to pay—$261,346—marks the largest unfair labor practice settlement for charter teachers to date. Back in June, the I Can charter network, based in Ohio, had to rehire four teachers and give seven teachers back pay for firing them during their 2013-2014 union drive. That settlement totaled $69,000.

“It’s unfortunate that these publicly funded schools often react so poorly when their teachers choose a union, and it’s even worse when they’re able to waste so much time and money union busting, something well outside the scope of the work the people of Chicago pay them to do,” says Brian Harris, a special education teacher in Chicago and the president of ChiACTS. “We often hear from charter operator groups that they’re ‘not anti-union but pro-teacher.’ One would assume that the ‘pro-teacher’ part would kick in after a mass illegal firing. Nonetheless, we’re very happy that we can move forward and finally begin to work on what is most important: making Urban Prep a better place to teach and to learn through empowering teachers.”