CHICAGO – Children’s paintings hang on the walls in the lobby of the Chicago Teachers Union office. It’s comforting for parents to see schoolkids’ artwork framed and on display.

Teachers unions – both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) – are among the largest and most well-organized advocates for keeping the “public” in public education.

The CTU – Local 1 of the AFT – fights for public schools, lower class sizes, more funding, dignity and respect for teachers and building coalitions with parents and community groups. At the helm of this 35,000-plus-member union is Deborah Lynch. Lynch, a special education teacher for 12 years, grew up in Chicago’s southwest side. She was decisively elected to office on a multiracial, reform slate three years ago.

Chicago public schools, like many across the nation, face considerable challenges. There’s the hostile Bush administration, which put the dastardly No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law as their centerpiece for education. There are overcrowded classes, inadequate and inequitable funding, cutbacks, and pressure from vouchers and other privatization scams.

Despite the odds, schoolteachers and paraprofessionals forge ahead every day, working hard to provide a quality education for all children. Over 430,000 children attend public schools here: 51 percent African American, 36 percent Latino, 9 percent white, 3 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, less than 1 percent Native American Indian. Just over 85 percent of the students come from low-income families. Illinois ranks second to last in providing equal funding to poor students and “majority minority” schools.

We interviewed Lynch at her office on Feb. 26.

People’s Weekly World: Tell us about No Child Left Behind.

Deborah Lynch: Last summer something like 350 schools were put on the “needs improvement” list of No Child Left Behind. Seventy-five percent of those schools had made gains on their test scores that year, yet they were labeled failures. Our members see this as another unfunded mandate, one more attack on urban public education, on teachers and their unions for test scores over which they have very little control. The most important thing we can do to reverse NCLB is defeat Bush in November.

Bush has co-opted this bill. Initially it was bipartisan with the support of Sen. [Edward] Kennedy, but it never was fully funded. They are requiring 100 percent accountability from our membership, but they are only funding two-thirds of it. There are some important provisions: having a qualified, certified teacher in every classroom, parental notifications – but NCLB is appearing to be more of an effort to label public education as a failure and give rise to the privatization that is really behind it.

We have to be honest and admit it takes more money to educate a child in poverty. Poverty is not an excuse for low student achievement, but it is a predictor if we are going to continue to put kids in overcrowded schools, large class sizes, labeling and punishing schools. It makes those with other options leave and go to other school systems.

[Chicago Public School (CPS) chief Arne] Duncan closed three schools two years ago. We fought those school closures and came to an agreement that no Chicago schools would be closed for academic reasons until they had a chance to go through our partnership project. It was the first time the union stood up on something like that.

In the end, Mr. Duncan did close the schools.

NCLB also feeds the testing frenzy. I taught eighth grade and an entire fourth quarter was taken up with test preparation. It narrows the curriculum – very little social studies and science going on in the schools, and forget the arts.

PWW: What about the little known piece of NCLB that requires schools to turn over 18-year-olds’ names to the federal government for military recruitment purposes?

Lynch: The House of Delegates passed a resolution calling on the school district to do its job. School districts have to inform students and parents of their right to opt out of giving names to the federal government. We called on CPS to honor its legal obligation.

In December of 2002, the union passed a resolution urging the president to exhaust all diplomatic and international efforts with Iraq and consider war only as a last resort.

PWW: Recently U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige called the NEA a “terrorist organization.” There is widespread concern about the government’s crackdown on dissent. How are your members responding to this atmosphere?

Lynch: Lots of concern about the infringement on civil rights. The Paige attack was reprehensible. It shows how out of control the Bush administration is – that a cabinet member would stoop that low because an organization has a difference of opinion on a [law].

PWW: How is the unity process going between the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers?

Lynch: Certainly the Bush administration and NCLB have given us a lot more common ground then we had before. NEA has filed a lawsuit against [NCLB]. AFT has attacked elements of the law, but not yet signed on to the suit. On the national level there is interest to merge. Some states have merged already – Florida, Minnesota, Montana. This hasn’t happened in Illinois. There has been no outreach on either side yet.

PWW: Class size is very important for parents and students. How has the union worked to build coalitions around issues of mutual interest?

Lynch: One of our proudest accomplishments is putting class size and staffing levels back in the contract where they belong. Currently the level is 28 in primary grades, 31 for intermediate and upper. It is still too high, but enforceable now.

Class size is vital. We spend time nurturing relationships. We have quarterly breakfasts with community, clergy, parents – at least 30 different local organizations. When we were going through the contract and possible strike it wasn’t, “Oh, we’re in trouble let’s see who we can call in.” We’ve been working together. These organizations were ready to support us. Some held press conferences. We prepared materials in three or four different languages, explaining to parents about the situation. Dialogue is vitally important, even if we don’t agree on everything.

The author can be reached at
Lance Cohn contributed to these articles.
(see related story below)

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Of bargaining rights and union democracy

The top of CTU President Deborah Lynch’s agenda was to repeal a 1995 law that prohibited city teachers from discussing issues like class size as part of their contract. Their collective bargaining rights, stripped away by the State Legislature and then-school chief Paul Vallas, along with the tacit support of Mayor Daley, was part of the so-called school reform.

Lynch said her slate’s election reflected the anger among the rank and file at this 1995 agreement. “It was a statement of our membership that they were mad as hell and didn’t want to take it anymore. Talk about inequity. Every other teacher in the state of Illinois can discuss class size, staffing and layoffs – these are time-honored, hard-fought union issues – and Chicago teachers can’t?!”

In November 2002 the Republicans were kicked out of office and Democratic leadership was swept in. The political action of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the state AFL-CIO was widely credited for this shift. Bargaining rights for Chicago teachers was a major item in the unions’ agenda.

“Getting our bargaining rights back was a stand-alone victory. That was our campaign promise,” Lynch told the World. “We had been able to make the case that school reform had swung too far in the wrong direction.”

The CTU then faced another challenge: Getting a decent contract during hard economic times. Contract talks began in May 2003 and went until September before a federal mediator was called in. The Board of Education would not move, Lynch said, and the mediator insisted this was the best the union could expect.

Lynch took the first offer to the membership and they voted it down overwhelmingly, sending the union leadership back to the bargaining table. The recalcitrant Board of Education refused to budge until the CTU’s House of Delegates voted 85 percent in favor of a strike authorization. It wasn’t until we were “armed with that strike vote at our backs” that the board moved, Lynch said.

The union managed to stave off the board-proposed health cost increases, they garnered another 1 percent wage gain (5 percent total) for the paraprofessionals, and two extra sick days for teachers with 18 or more years of service – an equivalent to a 1 percent pay raise.

One of the most contentious contract issues was the board’s proposal to exchange seven fewer days a year for 20-minute-longer days. An even swap would have been 15-minute-longer days, Lynch said, acknowledging that teachers often spend lots of unpaid time at school.

“The anger of the membership against a system that doesn’t appreciate their work – they were like ‘No. An even swap is fine but five extra minutes for this bureaucracy that doesn’t appreciate what I do? No.’” The union got the board to shave off those five minutes.

Lynch and the union leadership also faced organized opposition within the union during the contract negotiations, and faces a number of opponents in her re-election bid next month.

The contract process was an “exciting and challenging time,” Lynch said, adding there was an unprecedented level of union democracy with forums, on-site school visits and numerous materials explaining the contract and negotiations.

“Our leadership can be proud of opening up democracy within our union,” Lynch said. “Democracy is messy. We’re glad we’ve inspired a lot of people to get active and run for union office.”

The Chicago Federation of Labor presented Lynch their 2004 “Woman of the Year” award. “Lynch’s leadership style of placing the interests of her members first and her constant drive to achieve victory has earned her the recognition of the CFL as one of the most outstanding female leaders in the labor movement today,” the CFL statement said.

– Terrie Albano
(see related story below)

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Brown v. Board, 50 years later Funding formulas maintain separate and unequal schools

While progress has been made since the Supreme

Court ruled 50 years ago that separate was not equal in its Brown v. Board of Education decision, funding inequities plague state after state and contribute to a process that some call the resegregation of America’s schools.

Today schools with majority Black and Latino student populations, often with high rates of poverty, get less money per pupil then wealthy districts, which often are majority white. Less money and resources mean a school can’t have music and art programs, libraries and books, even paper towels – the list is endless.

The World asked Deborah Lynch her views on desegregation and inequities in public education.

“Our state is not only 48th in terms of the money the state puts into education, but it is the second worst state in the nation in the disparities between money going to affluent districts and the money going to districts serving poor kids,” Lynch said. “Literally we are the second to the last because of our over-reliance on property taxes. The CTU has long held the position that we have to change our basic funding structure.” (New York is last. See related story page 5.)

Lynch is passionate about fighting for funding equity. “The over-reliance on the property tax creates horrendous and unconscionable inequities. We are surrounded by districts that spend two, three, even four times more per child,” she said. The CTU is part of a statewide coalition working to change the unequal funding structure.

Lynch and the CTU may find an ally with public schools chief Arne Duncan, who called the school funding system “morally bankrupt.”

Duncan has remarked, “It is criminal that the funding for a child’s education is based upon his neighborhood or his zip code, and I can’t believe that in the 21st century that we permit that kind of system to exist.”

The Chicago Defender newspaper reported Duncan’s comments made at a Metropolitan Planning Council meeting to discuss Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn’s Taxpayer Action amendment, which would generate $575 million a year of new money by raising taxes on the state’s richest citizens – those making over $250,000 per year. The measure, placed on the March 16 primary ballot as an advisory referendum, passed with 76 percent of the vote. Polls suggest Democrats, Republicans and independents would be for changing the tax structure if more money were to go to education.

But what happened to all that lottery money for education?

“Many citizens still think that the lottery was supposed to go to education,” Lynch said. “It supplanted, not supplemented the education budget. They think they are helping education when they play the lottery. It was a big scam.”

– Terrie Albano