Teachers, the Mayor, and the Governor: A Political Battle with High Stakes for Chicago's Youth

 /  Aug. 2, 2016, 2:27 p.m.


The kindergarten classroom in Carnegie Elementary School is warm and humid. The students sit at low tables, writing sentences with their “sight word” for the week. Several write out full sentences, capital letters and punctuation perfectly placed. Others struggle with the words, sounding them out letter by letter; some students even have trouble identifying the letters and the sounds they make. For many of Chicago’s kindergarten students, this year is their first time in a classroom, as pre-kindergarten programs are unavailable to many of the city’s low-income families. Although the students have made great strides in the last year, their teacher is still worried about how they will fare in first grade. Young children’s school-readiness is an issue that has preoccupied the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in recent months; pre-kindergarten programs have been one of the many points of contention between CTU president Karen Lewis and the administration that presides over the funding of the Chicago Public Schools system, headed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Bruce Rauner.

The Mayor

Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel ascended to his current position as mayor of Chicago in 2011, and successfully retained his seat in the 2015 mayoral runoff election against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Known in Washington for his aggressive, though strategic, political style, his financial acumen, and his comfort with profanity, Emanuel seemed to have “mellowed out” by the time he was elected as mayor. However, his approval ratings plummeted in late 2015 in the aftermath of the shooting of Laquan McDonald and the subsequent release of footage of the incident.

Emanuel’s relationship with the Chicago Teachers’ Union has always been strained. The typically antagonistic relationship between unions and Chicago government is brought into sharp focus by the strong personality of Karen Lewis. Referred to by the Chicago Sun-Times as Emanuel’s “archrival,” Lewis has been a thorn in the mayor’s side since his election. The two famously butted heads over Emanuel’s efforts to lengthen the school day for CPS students. A meeting scheduled to address this issue ended with Emanuel allegedly yelling, “Fuck you, Lewis!” Since then, the two have negotiated over contracts and furlough days (unpaid days off), but the relationship between Chicago’s mayor and the president of its teachers’ union is still hostile.

The constant point of contention between Emanuel and Lewis is the budget for Chicago’s education system. Emanuel claims to be working toward the goal of a better-funded, more efficient education system for the city, but CTU leaders are not convinced. On February 8, the mayor’s office sent out a press release that promised to “streamline the administration of early learning programs” and invest the savings from these efforts into expanding full-day pre-kindergarten to children across the city. The mayor claims that this program will extend pre-kindergarten programming to approximately one thousand additional children by the 2017-18 school year, contributing to a total of about seventeen thousand children enrolled in full-day preschool programs throughout the city—a 60 percent increase from 2011. The funding for this increase would come from the “streamline” of the prekindergarten administrative staff and the consolidation of the oversight of community-based programs into the Department of Family Support and Services (DFSS). A projected $1 million from central office cuts will go toward lengthening half-day pre-kindergarten slots into full-day slots.

The press release goes on to state that since 2011, Emanuel’s administration has increased the number of children enrolled in early learning programs by over 50 percent, and has added over 2,400 full-day slots. Additionally, work is planned to begin immediately on a universal, online enrolment system for CPS and DFSS to help parents select and enrol in schools in their area.

The Labor Leader

Dartmouth alum and former chemistry teacher Karen Lewis was elected president of the CTU with 60 percent of the union’s vote in 2010. Since then she has fought tirelessly for the interests of Chicago teachers, campaigning against the involvement of corporate interests in education and the privatization of Chicago schools.

Though Lewis has waged many battles as president of the CTU, the teachers’ strike of September 2012 is what many expect will be her legacy. The goals of the strike included securing a 30 percent raise for teachers, softening the teacher evaluation system, preventing merit pay from being instituted, and ensuring protection for veteran teachers in phased-out schools. Results were mixed: Lewis achieved concessions limiting a controversial school reform program and Emanuel secured a teacher evaluation system. The deal also called for an average pay raise of 17.6 percent over the course of four years, and lessened the significance of student test scores in teacher evaluations. In the midst of current tensions between the CTU and government leadership, 2012 has been referred back to as the reference point for all other CTU movements.

Recently, Lewis has shifted her attention to a new set of issues facing Chicago’s teachers, from purported discrimination against black teachers in recent layoffs to anger at the restriction of furlough days. She and the CTU were less than pleased at Emanuel’s announcement of prekindergarten program expansion. The union accused Emanuel of pulling a public relations stunt to “divert attention from his dismantling of public education through budget cuts and layoffs.” In defending its rejection of Emanuel’s plan, the CTU points to advocates’ claims that supporting his efforts “means supporting additional cuts from the K-12 public schools program.”

One of the major players in the fight for universal, full-day pre-kindergarten is Bright Future Chicago, a young coalition that works on strategizing and establishing the long-term actions needed in order to create a system that would allow for such a service. Speaking with the Gate, a representative of Bright Future Chicago described the coalition’s immediate goal as shifting the narrative surrounding early child care. The representative claimed that a year of infant care is more expensive than both a year of college and a year of rent, and that it costs 75 percent of annual income for someone working full time on minimum wage. Thus, the coalition feels it is important that early child care is no longer seen as the responsibility of the family, but rather as a duty of society, just as much as educating children ages 5-18 is.

In Bright Future Chicago’s 2014 resolution supporting a plan to establish high-quality universal early care and education from birth to age five, the coalition discussed the importance of arbitration of risky interests swaps with banks in recovering funding for public services such as education. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is still paying the price of these “toxic” interest swaps that were undertaken from 2003 to 2007. There have been suggestions that these deals were entered into fraudulently by the banks, as they may have misrepresented the risks to the city. Thus, the representative from Bright Future stated, there is money out there that can be distributed to early child care programs, both within CPS and in community-run programs; this money is simply being given to the banks that engaged in the loan swaps. To Bright Future Chicago, the involvement of the city government in the toxic loan swaps speaks to the entanglement of politics and financial interests, and provides the coalition and its partners with a strong reason to reclaim the political process.

In 2014, CTU called for Chicago’s adoption of a universal system to provide full-day care and education to children under five years old, but they feel that this goal is still far from reality. Writing on the CTU’s blog, Bright Future Chicago asserts that the seventeen thousand full-day preschool spaces that Emanuel claims will be available by 2017 still leave 76 percent of Chicago three- and four-year-olds without access to full-day programs. The coalition also claims that it is unclear where nine hundred of the full-day slots will come from, as Emanuel’s plan only explicitly details the lengthening of one hundred half-day spaces into full days.

The Governor

Since his election in 2014, Governor Bruce Rauner has faced a series of controversies, from remarks on the lawsuits and investigations into the deaths and mistreatment of residents in nursing homes owned by Rauner’s former companies to accusations that the governor used clout to ensure his daughter was admitted into the highly regarded CPS high school Walter Payton College Prep. Although his approval rating—41 percent—is near his 50 percent disapproval rating statewide, he is much less favored in traditionally blue Chicago. In spite of the prevalence of disapproval, however, Rauner is faring well in light of the “scorched earth policy” he has pursued in recent dealings with the Illinois state budget.

In his education policy, Rauner has advocated for steady increases in funding for primary and secondary education, frequently going to battle against Democrats, who want the education budget to further incorporate social services programs and higher education. In a visit to Wilmette Junior High School in March, Rauner asserted that he would not support legislation, such as 2015 Senate Bill 1, that would take funding from better-off districts and reallocate it to poorer districts.

Like Emanuel, Rauner has crossed swords with the formidable Karen Lewis. Most notable recently has been Lewis’s description of Rauner as a “new ISIS recruit,” saying “has Homeland Security checked this man out yet? Because the things he’s doing look like acts of terror on poor and working class people.” Lewis claims that Rauner’s work on the social services and education components to push through union-weakening reforms is tantamount to terrorism. Rauner’s office responded to the educator and stepmother by saying that this rhetoric “sets a terrible example for our kids.”

In the area of early childhood education, Rauner is committed to protecting funding, advocating for an “Unbalanced Budget Act” that would make every area fair game for cuts besides early childhood education and General State Aid to public schools. However, other areas of education and social service can still fall subject to budget cuts. In his most recent budget address, Rauner said “No matter how this session unfolds, send that education bill to my desk – CLEAN – NO GAMES – and I’ll sign it immediately.” This has been interpreted by some to mean that “day care services, autism services, and health care services” are at risk of being cut.

When asked whether Rauner served the interests of Chicago’s young learners, the representative from Bright Future Chicago responded that the governor’s work with the education budget has been devastating for tens and thousands of families. In 2015, Rauner made unilateral cuts to the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which is funded through a combination of federal and state dollars and subsidizes child care for people below a certain threshold of the federal poverty level. Rauner reduced this threshold so that families with a monthly income of up to 50 percent of the poverty level qualified for CCAP assistance; this was a significant decrease from the previous 185 percent limit. Through the work of Bright Future Chicago and other organizations, the governor subsequently restored the threshold to 162 percent of the poverty level.

High Stakes for Chicago Families

The children in Carnegie Elementary’s kindergarten class are like any other group of five-year-olds—vibrant, excitable, and proud of their accomplishments. However, many come from low-income families, headed by parents who work all day. Without consistent access to pre-kindergarten programs, children like those at Carnegie begin their educational experience behind schedule, and their parents must struggle to care for them while working to support their families. Budget cuts, funding shortages, long work days, and unavailability of pre-kindergarten slots all conspire to make it difficult for low-income families to secure a safe and healthy day-to-day routine for their young children. As Karen Lewis claimed, “a just Chicago would . . . provide full day, developmentally appropriate pre-kindergarten to all who wanted it.” Although Emanuel, Lewis, and Rauner have legitimate disagreements on how education should work in Chicago and Illinois as a whole, it is crucial to recognize that their widely-publicized disputes have greater import than the squabbling of politicians; these leaders hold the future of Chicago’s children in their hands.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Kaeli Subberwal

Kaeli Subberwal is a fourth-year majoring in political science and minoring in physics. She has spent her summers working in local journalism at the Summit Daily News and national journalism at HuffPost, and doing archival research through the College Summer Institute in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In her free time, Kaeli enjoys reading, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and doing crossword puzzles instead of studying.


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