Karen Lewis: Our members in classrooms; our district in courtrooms.

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-From Karen Lewis, CTU

The events that will unfold today in two separate Chicago courtrooms are the result of the turmoil and financial irresponsibility that has defined our mayoral controlled school district for the past six years. First, former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett will be sentenced to federal prison for her role in defrauding Chicago Public Schools by soliciting and agreeing to accept bribes and kickbacks from her involvement with SUPES Academy, a third-party contractor to which she steered a $20 million no-bid contract as the head of CPS.

Shortly thereafter, a Cook County Circuit Court judge will issue a ruling in a suit filed by the Chicago Board of Education against Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education over unfair funding for education in Illinois. It’s a legal challenge that has cost taxpayers both time and money, and ironically, finds its basis in the same racially discriminatory practices that have been a hallmark of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration and its policies regarding Chicago’s public schools.

For more than 24,000 Chicago public school teachers, clinicians, and paraprofessionals, however, today will be business as usual as they work tirelessly, as they do every day, to provide true sanctuary and the schools that Chicago’s students deserve. These are Chicagoans, heads of single-parent families, minority women of color and parents of CPS students themselves who have been battered by incessant cuts and indignities over the past several years—from privatized custodial services that have led to dirtier schools, to the loss of librarians and special education teachers, to the last two years of furloughs. Their jobs are challenging enough without the embarrassment of a SUPES scandal, or infantile bickering among elected and appointed leaders.

Underlying these indignities is a long-term crisis that has severely impacted school funding—our schools are simply not supported by an adequate, sustainable, progressive source of revenue. As a result, each year our members are forced to endure more cuts, and are doubly impacted as both residents and taxpayers of the city of Chicago. So no matter the outcome today in the war of the roses with Rahm and his handpicked Chicago Board of Education on one side, and Rauner and his handpicked Illinois state board on the other, unless hundreds of millions of dollars in much-needed funding accompanies the judge’s ruling, we will still face the threat of budget cuts and mass layoffs in our schools.  

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has spoken of the budget cuts he and the mayor imposed in February as “tough choices,” yet these cuts came after their foolish choice of trusting a governor who has shown no desire to invest in nearly 400,000 children—the overwhelming majority of whom are Black and Latino. Tough choices would be taxing those who can most afford it, or exhausting all avenues to secure school funding, and not balancing budgets on the backs of educators, students and their families.

The Chicago Teachers Union is part of a vital group of institutions in the city that unfailingly argues for progressive revenue to fund our schools, and despite the political landscape, we have had remarkable success winning resources and legislation for our classrooms and students. But there is much work left to do. At our Union’s last House of Delegates meeting, I told a group of reporters that nothing is off the table should the district continue its plans to end the school year on June 1. And I meant that. Our goal is for CTU members and their students to finish the year strong and enjoy the summer break they have earned.

After the courtrooms clear today, our members will return to work Monday morning, rallying before and after classes in recognition of May Day, in their positions as the real leaders of Chicago’s public schools. They understand better than most that we are in a difficult climate, but they remain committed to their students and classrooms just as our union is committed to advocating for our schools, defending our profession and demanding fair funding for public education.

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