Asked and answered

Teachers’ union chief Jesse Sharkey on school closings, contract battles, and life after Rahm

PHOTO: PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Chicago Teachers Union chief Jesse Sharkey flanked by union officials on Sept. 4, 2018, the day Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he was not seeking a third term. To his right is Stacy Davis Gates, the union's new vice president.


Two disruptions in the city power dynamic leave the Chicago Teachers Union in unfamiliar, and interesting, territory. Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last week that he won’t seek a third term and has yet to endorse an heir apparent. Meanwhile, the union — which rarely misses a chance to spar with the mayor — officially promoted Vice President Jesse Sharkey to the top job, as expected, to succeed the formidable negotiator Karen Lewis, who has brain cancer and retired early.

Chalkbeat Chicago spoke with Sharkey about entering contract negotiations this fall amid seismic shifts in City Hall. We also asked about his negotiating style, if he really failed to return messages from former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey, and how he plans to rally membership post-Janus. Observers predict a blow to union membership nationwide in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Rahm Emanuel announced he’s not seeking re-election the day before you were officially promoted to union chief. How does that change your approach to entering a contract year?

It raises certain questions about how contract negotiations are going to work. I will say this: In order to manage schools, you have to know a bunch of stuff about education. Right now, there is an administration in Chicago Public Schools – not that we don’t have disagreements with them, we do – but, frankly, (CEO Janice) Jackson’s administration is completely capable of beginning the work of hammering out a labor contract. When we get to the tactical questions about what working conditions should be like, we expect to be able to start negotiating with her administration and the Board of Education.

Obviously, toward the end, there’s going to be some broader questions about direction, and whoever the mayor is going to be is going to want to weigh in on them. But I expect to be able to begin and stay a timeline so we can get a contract landed by the time school starts next year.

Will the union make support for an elected school board an absolute requisite for a mayoral endorsement?

We’re not in the business of making absolute requisites. Politics is a funny critter, and we’ll see what happens here.

How will the union weigh in on whether to keep schools CEO Jackson or appoint someone new?

We should have an (elected) school board making decisions about school leadership (school board members are appointed by Chicago’s mayor). But, in the meantime, I think it would be extremely useful for us to not keep changing leadership. We’re getting motion sickness back here, as the plane turns one way and then another, as it plunges and then climbs. People are reaching for their barf bags.

I don’t agree with everything, but she’s the most qualified CEO we’ve had in 20 years, and (we need) a little stability moving forward.

Putting politics aside for a moment, what is the single most crucial contract demand you are going to push for?

Adequately staffed schools.

Do you think things will get better with the district’s announcement that they are adding social workers and guidance counselors?

It’s recognition on the part of the district that there’s a real problem, but it’s no way near enough.

Your predecessor, Karen Lewis, was known for her sharp negotiating skills. There are also stories about how she’d host these long dinners and have deep conversations over great food. How do you describe your negotiating style and how different is it from Karen’s?

Karen really had the ability to envelop everybody at the negotiating table with her personal warmth, even as she told them no. Karen was extremely good at shooting down people’s bullcrap and doing it in a way that didn’t alienate them: The reason that skill is valuable is that, no matter how crazily opposed our camps were, we always maintained the ability to talk and not get crunchy. That meant that we could kind of keep things together in terms of negotiations.

People sometimes think of me as being someone who is interested in solving problems and oriented to solutions at the bargaining table. But I’m much more of a traditional trade unionist in some ways than Karen. I believe in sticking closely to my rank and file, and I believe the demands of the leadership need to be the demands of the table. I worry about the loss of Karen’s charm in that equation. I hope things don’t get crunchier, but if they do, so be it. I have to be me.

We talked staff in buildings. What else is your membership telling you they need?

People are more concerned with paying benefits, coming out of what’s been frankly a pretty austere last several years. Paying benefits is going to be an issue for us.

We’re definitely still in some internal conversations about what else filters out to the top, but people are still concerned about the future of the school system. I suspect we will continue to ask for some processes in democracy and fairness when the board starts thinking about closing schools. We obviously (want) to hold at bay charter growth. We have ideas about investing in community schools, and we have ideas that the city should start thinking about (around) affordable housing. We’re not at the point where we’ve crystallized how those ideas come to the table.

The Kids First report, which shows tens of thousands of vacancies, came out the same week as data from the universal enrollment platform GoCPS, which illustrates demand for some schools and not others. What is the right approach, from your point of view, to excess capacity?

I think one question is the methodology in the (Kids First) report. In 2013, when the district wanted to justify school closings, they made a bunch of decisions that were just erroneous. They made assumptions about how many students should be in classes that baked in oversized classes, such as 30 kids in kindergarten. In high school, where I taught for years, there’s a health center — several rooms that offer a really important service and make the school a nexus for keeping the school together. Does that count as an unused space because those are rooms that should be used for classes? That is not a fair way to look at it.

But even given that, the question you raise is legitimate. The heart of what was wrong with the school closings in 2013 is that the rationale for closing schools never was: Let’s close schools and save money. But the reason they didn’t say that is because, even Rahm and (former schools chief) Barbara Byrd-Bennett, as crass and corrupt as they were, weren’t willing to say: We have a budget crisis and we’re going to solve it on the backs of the poorest kids in the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago, virtually all of whom happen to be black and brown. Because when you close schools, that’s what you’re doing. They said they are going to close schools to improve educational outcomes for students. They did not improve the educational outcomes for students. Plenty of research shows that.

What I worry about is that, sometimes communities change and you need to do something different with a school building. You have to involve a community and have a democratic conversation about what you are trying to do. If you close all the schools in a neighborhood, you’ve killed that neighborhood. We’re not trying to be the San Francisco of the Midwest: We’re trying to be a city whose vision is still vibrant, working-class neighborhoods that have investment in them.

When I hear about the Kids First report, I think you need a commitment to the democratic process and an investment commitment, so that our neighborhoods are places people want to live.

So what do you think we should do with a high school that is built for 2,000 students and has 200?

The first thing you need to do is talk to people who live in that community and who go to that school. The second thing you have to do, in my opinion, is make some commitments to bring in resources and programs that are relevant to the people around there.

One of the crazy things I watched happen in public schools in Chicago is that we dismantled the trade and vocational programs. Rather than investing in that, and figuring out how to capture some of that activity for our schools, we shut them down. When I go out to some of those schools where the enrollments are the lowest, people tell me they’d like vocational programs. That’s easy to say and harder to do – there are a lots of parts to making that work – but we’re going to have to dig in to those problems in order to make public schools work in the neighborhoods. If you just shut down the schools, you’re not helping things.

What is your take on the Stanford report that shows Chicago is the fastest-improving urban district. Do you believe it?

Test scores are partly up because of the hard work of teachers, and students, and parents too. But you don’t see the teachers’ union holding press events about test scores like the mayor has been doing. We don’t — because the overemphasis on tests as metrics of school success is doing real harm to the values of education that we should be supporting.

Every study tells us that test scores follow so closely with the socioeconomic status of parents. So basically what you’re doing is confining a huge swath of schools in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago to really being behind the eight ball. It’s hard for them to ever be recognized as good schools, and then that rating makes it hard for them to attract students, and it becomes this harmful spiral.

I also object to this sort of being proud about test scores going up at the same time there are thousands of people leaving the system (Chicago enrollment declined by 64,100 children from 2000 to 2017). The scores are higher for the remaining students. But that’s not something we should be happy about; that’s something we should be ashamed of.

But I will say that, when I first started teaching in CPS, there were a lot of teachers I met who had not sent their own children to public schools. Now, every teacher I know sends their children to public schools in Chicago. That’s not in the [Stanford] study, but I think that’s telling.

In Maggie Hickey’s preliminary report (which examines the district’s handling of sexual misconduct cases), she goes so far as to write in the footnotes that you didn’t call her back. Do you agree with the observation that the union has been absent in the discussions about what to do?

I’m super annoyed about that. She emailed me, the email went to my spam folder, I happened not to see it. I’m not that hard to get in touch with – you can call my assistant, our front desk, our press office. There are a lot of ways to get in touch with me.

We, very early on, reached out to the board and said let’s get a group of us together — especially the people who are the frontline workers — because we want to do something about it. This is not something I’ve told anyone on the record, but I personally was a victim of abuse when I was a kid. And I put my own children in public schools. So this is not something we’re trying to politicize. We have to keep kids safe, and we have to believe children. I feel like that was just a shot.

Can you describe how the union has been a part of the discussion?

I personally reached out to Janice Jackson, and said, let’s get a table together. I’ve mentioned it in public several times.

Did it happen?

We haven’t been taken up on it at this point.

All our teachers are going through (fingerprinting and background rechecking), and that chews up a lot of personnel time and energy. I much rather would have had less of a big public pronouncement — look what we’re doing: We background checked everyone! — and instead teach people who work in schools what to look for, who to call, how to assess our processes at any given school to keep children safe. We probably are still going to get there, and it probably is still going to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

In your last contract, you demanded a sustainable schools program (which partners 20 neighborhood schools and community groups and funds $10 million worth of extra services). Will that be part of the negotiations for the next contract?

It absolutely will. In places where there is a partnership with real grassroots community groups, people view schools are being a source of strength in the neighborhood. We are very committed to seeing it continue and giving it a chance to succeed.

What is your message to your membership in the post-Janus era? Are you worried about retrenchment?

Our union has a vision about where we want to go, and that vision was always closely connected to Karen. But the truth is that there has been an educational justice movement in Chicago, and there is a whole cohort of teachers and paraprofessionals and parents and clinicians and students who have found our voice. We want schools to be a place where there is joy associated with teaching and learning. I think that’s a compelling vision, and I know that there are a lot of people who are not union officials who feel that.

It’s never been about a fee for service, or the mean union takes your money and you don’t know what happens. We know what we have. We have an organization that belongs to its members, that fights for what we believe in, that has energy and skill, and that makes the city a better place.


talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Future of Schools

Eve Ewing explains why some communities just can’t get over school closings

If Chicago schools are so bad, why do people fight to keep them from closing?

Eve Ewing’s new book “Ghosts in the Schoolyard” explores that question. In doing so, she touches a wound still festering in Chicago communities five years after the massive 2013 school closings, which she calls a case study on the powerful role race and racism play in policy decisions.

“Like an electric current running through water, race has a way of filling space even as it remains invisible,” writes Ewing, an acclaimed sociologist and poet born in Chicago, and a rising cultural and intellectual force in the city.

“Ghosts,” scheduled to publish Oct. 22, is her second book, following a 2017 poetry collection.  A former Chicago Public Schools student and teacher, she dives into transcripts of public hearings where communities fought for their schools, explores the fraught relationship between black neighborhoods like Bronzeville and district leaders throughout history, and considers the emotional toll of losing a school. She also draws connections between school policy decisions past and present, Chicago’s long legacy of segregation, and the rapid gentrification reshaping the city today.

When Ewing started writing the book, she felt sad — about the loss of a school in which she had taught and about the children, community members, parents, and teachers who felt disempowered by the process.

“I’m still sad, but now with the distance of time and as we look at the city now and so many things we’re going through, it’s clear to me that the school closings were one very large piece of a much bigger pattern,” she said. “Now, I’m worried for the future of our city, which really feels like it’s at a crossroads about what it’s going to be, and if it’s going to be a place that’s habitable for poor people, if it’s going to be a place that’s habitable for black people, and for other people of color. I think the school closings played a huge part in the answer to those questions potentially being no.”

Chalkbeat Chicago interviewed Ewing about her book, the public discourse around “bad schools,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s political legacy, and more.

When you talk about school closings being part of this much bigger pattern, what specifically are you referring to?

A pattern of erosion of the institutions, services and resources that make a place a suitable home for vulnerable people. That includes mental health care, that includes a police force that doesn’t kill people with impunity, that includes a transportation system that is fair and affordable and equitable, that includes good jobs for people and training for those people to be qualified for those jobs. And that includes affordable housing. As I try to make clear in the book, there’s an intimate relationship between schools and housing.

Your book is titled “Ghosts In the School Yard.” What ghosts?

I think the title has multiple meanings. One, it’s referring to the many people whose experiences, specifically in Bronzeville and across the South Side and across Chicago, people who are no longer with us but whose struggles and experiences presage what we saw in 2013. It’s also referring to the ghosts of prior schools.

I sort of started thinking of the schools themselves as these entities that are no longer with us. Another thing is ghosts in terms of skeletons in the closet — the shadows and phantoms of the ugly parts of our history that we need to acknowledge to move forward with any kind of honesty.

You really dive into this idea of institutional mourning. Why was it important for you to address that, and how did you go about it?

Institutional mourning is the idea that people mourn institutions the way they also mourn people. The lost institution can be the church burned down in a fire, or the barber shop in your community where everybody used to gather that’s now replaced by an office building. Anywhere people gather that has social meaning. I argue this phenomenon is relevant especially in communities that are very vulnerable, where people often have a higher reliance on shared institutions because they have fewer individual resources. For example, some former residents are still mourning the demolition of public housing projects in Bronzeville, and that mourning is especially painful because these are often people without access to private property or home ownership.

I set out to interview people who had been directly impacted by school closings. I already had  hypothesized there was this relationship between race and racism and school closings. But in the public discourse there was this debate: Was it racist, was it not racist? I wanted to understand how the people who were most impacted understood that. I wanted to hear if they said, my school was closed because of racism or because we couldn’t cut it academically, or because our building was empty and we had too much space.

What I heard was just how often the metaphor of death and images of death was recurring in their responses. The way they used this intensely intimate and emotional language to talk about their own reaction to that perceived death is something that happened over and over, but was also a close fit with my own experiences as a teacher processing the school closures. So I said I’m making a name for it.

You also pay special attention to the nature of black grieving in describing how communities mourned their schools. Why?

The last several years have forced all of us to think about black grief, and for black people to experience tremendous ways of grieving, as we always have throughout the history of this country, but in a way that has been very visible and very consuming.

And black death has been thrust upon us in these newly hyper visible ways. I’m talking to you in the wave of the Jason Van Dyke verdict. In order for us to get to that verdict, many black people were subjected over and over again to the trauma of seeing this child (Laquan McDonald)  brutally shot in the street over and over and over.

I decided it was important to think of the ways that black people mourn in public, whether that means the mothers of children who have been killed grieving on the television camera, or people who have lost someone putting up a vigil with teddy bears and candles and flowers, or whether that means airbrushing their relative’s name on a shirt. All of these are forms of public grieving and shared communal grieving, so it only made more sense for me to understand that and link it in to this idea of institutional mourning.

Eve Ewing

You talk a lot in this book about the language of failure, the discourse about so-called bad schools. How does that language set the stage for decision-making at CPS?

Language is everything. Since the origin of public schooling in this country there’s never been anything that’s an objective measure of school quality, because communities have always had divergent definitions of what they want their schools to do. As long as you have that, you’ll always have differing definitions of school quality. If you go to a school that’s super elite but all the black kids get suspended or tracked into lower-level classes or traumatized by racist things their teachers say, that to me isn’t a good school, even though on paper to many people it may be a good school.

When we start having conversations about failures and goodness, we have to be really analytical about what we’re using to define those things. What’s emerged across the country is so many schools have been deemed failures in ways that don’t account for the lived reality of the challenges they face. Some of these schools are the only places where kids are getting fed every day or where someone makes sure they have a warm coat or tells them they love them and they’re special, even as those schools “fail” to raise that child’s test score.

I think it’s fair to talk about the idea of failure, but we also need to talk about moral failure. I think in Chicago there are at least as many moral failures of political leadership, and of the people that are supposed to be running our schools as there are “school failures.” We talk a lot about one and not the other.

You also mention this language of growth, of change, that’s in a statement like “Building a New Chicago,” one of the slogans that started appearing on construction signs when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected. How does that connect with the school closings?

When we talk about growth it’s always a question of growth for who and at what costs. As we know, black Chicago is shrinking. It’s really hard to hear about growth when the city has lost so many black residents.

In school closings, the district cites enrollment declines and how much it costs to educate students and operate schools. How do you respond to that idea?

The argument about scale and educating fewer kids, I think is a complicated one because as of now there has not been any analysis showing we saved money from this. (A report by the University of Chicago Consortium said the district can’t point to any savings, yet). Unless I missed it, there has not actually been a final assessment on the part of CPS of how much money this cost and if we indeed saved any money.

Aside from that, this question of efficiency and how many kids you can fit in a building and how much it costs, those questions only seem to come up when it has to do with poor kids. If you send your kids to private school or any kind of elite school, small class sizes are touted as being beneficial. It’s only when you’re talking about poor black kids the question becomes how many can we jam into a building and if it’s not efficient we need to close it.

Eve Ewing
PHOTO: Hayveyah McGowan
An illustration of poet and scholar Eve Ewing.

Can the school district afford a policy that doesn’t close schools?

It’s not that school closings are always bad, that’s not the argument of the book. The question is:  Is it possible for us to do this in a way that is humane, that is caring, that provides full acknowledgment of the emotional aftermath it presents for people, and is it possible to do it in a way that includes the people most affected at the table with something to say about their own lives and own conditions?

The problem is at this point there’s such a long history of mistrust that even if we have to close schools tomorrow and CPS comes up with a process that was amazingly transparent and participatory, people would still not trust the district! There’s a long hard road that has to be walked in this city to rebuild trust in all these institutions. The question is are people in power willing to walk it with us.

What would a school closing process look like that wasn’t racist?

To answer that question you would need to begin by asking it of the people in the school you would want to close. Parents, teachers, students, community members. I’m talking about truly asking questions of what people need, being willing to listen even if it’s something you don’t want to hear, and being willing to take that wisdom and those needs into account.

When we look back at Rahm Emanuel’s political legacy in Chicago, where will the school closings fit in?

I think that his political career did and has done a great deal of harm in many areas of the city. The school closings are a very large tip of a very large iceberg. I think for a lot of people it was a very definitive moment. He did something that Mayor [Richard] Daley, his predecessor, had already done, but had done it more slowly over time in a way that didn’t galvanize people’s reactions in the same way. The school closures were loud, they were visible, they were hurtful, and we are still feeling the aftereffects. I think for a lot of people that will be the definitive decision of his mayoral run.

Eve Ewing
Eve Ewing reading from her first book, a collection of poetry titled “Electric Arches.”