How Karen Lewis’ own story follows the arc of Chicago’s contentious education history

PHOTO: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis in 2016

This fall marks 55 years since a massive student boycott to protest segregation in Chicago schools, and six years since a strike aimed at improving conditions for teachers. A new book by University of Illinois at Chicago historian Elizabeth Todd-Breland examines that history that unites those two events — and how that history relates to the racial politics of education policy change in Chicago. This excerpt is from the epilogue of “A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s.”

In the fall of 1968, a black student boycotted Kenwood High School on the South Side of Chicago for several consecutive Mondays. She did not act alone but was part of a movement of tens of thousands of black students at high schools across the city.

These were not spontaneous walkouts. Her father drove her and her friends to and from organizing meetings where the students outlined their demands for more black teachers and administrators, the incorporation of black history into the curriculum, and improved facilities at predominantly black schools in the city. Her parents worried that she would be arrested but encouraged her and supported her activism. Collectively, these boycotts nearly shut down several predominantly black schools in the city and compelled the superintendent of schools to concede to a number of the students’ demands.

In 1968 this lone student’s voice would not necessarily have stood out among the many young voices of protest in the city. In the 2010s, however, it would be difficult to miss her. This high school student was Karen Lewis (née Jennings), future president of the Chicago Teachers Union and the face and voice of the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike that once again brought the city’s education system to a halt and elicited concessions from previously intractable city authorities.

Karen Lewis’s political trajectory maps onto much of the history documented in this book. Her parents were black migrants to Chicago who became CPS teachers. While not on the front lines of black teacher organizing, her parents were part of a generation of black educators who struggled against racist barriers to certification and leveraged the hard-earned benefits of unionization for employment gains.

Lewis attended Kenwood, a high school born of desegregation debates during the mid-1960s and founded as an intentionally integrated school. But Lewis’s protests at Kenwood in 1968 were for Black Power, not integration. 

When she first started teaching chemistry in CPS in the 1980s, Lewis admired [Chicago’s first black Mayor] Harold Washington and CTU President Jacqueline Vaughn as leaders and symbols of black political power, but she wasn’t particularly involved in the union. Lewis’s political trajectory underscores the permeability of different black political ideologies and the importance of understanding black political perspectives historically, intergenerationally, and relationally, rather than oppositionally and out of context.

Lewis benefited from the earlier struggles of black teachers, but the bulk of her teaching career during the 1990s and 2000s coincided with the decline in black teacher organizing. Lewis worked at two selective enrollment schools: majority-white Lane Technical High School on the North Side and majority-black King College Preparatory High School on the South Side. She supported the idea of using magnet and selective enrollment schools to promote integration but also acknowledged the failure of that strategy.

Mayor Richard M. Daley had brokered labor peace with the CTU while stratifying public schooling with new charter, selective enrollment, and magnet schools. In 2008, dismayed by increased privatization and attacks on public education, Lewis started attending reading groups, speaking out at Board of Education meetings, and working to restrict charter school expansion with a new CTU caucus, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. Lewis recalled that working with this group “reminded me of my student activism days in the sixties, so I felt like I was right back to where I started from. It was just like this full circle thing.”

The emergent Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, initially organized by white leftist teachers, participated in citywide progressive coalitions and organized alongside parent and community groups across the city that were pushing back against school closings, the proliferation of charter schools, and issues related to racial and economic inequality that impacted CPS families, the majority of which were low-income black and Latinx families.

In 2010, CTU members voted to replace the by-then complacent CTU leadership with Karen Lewis and the other members of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. This signaled a renewed commitment to the type of community organizing forged by Lillie Peoples and other black educators during the 1960s and 1970s. The insurgency of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators developed from the ground up with teachers, parents, and community members working together. Teachers were once again organizing in the communities where their students lived, fighting back against city education reform plans that disproportionately impacted black communities.

As a primary antagonist of the corporatist regime in the city, Lewis’s trajectory is firmly situated in Chicago’s long history of black protest politics and community organizing. However, running parallel to this history is the formidable history of more top-down autocratic political and corporate power.

Nationally, Republicans and Democrats have come together to support neoliberal education reform policies. These policies encouraged reforms that prioritized competition, privatization, school closings and “turnarounds,” charter school expansion, and a reliance on standardized testing. Democratic president Barack Obama, a Chicagoan and the first black president of the United States, ran on a platform of change in 2008. However, in the realm of education he largely advanced the policies of his predecessors, nationally and locally: Republican President George W. Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind law at the federal level and Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Renaissance 2010 education reform policies in Chicago.

Together these policies opened the door for high-stakes testing, school closings, and the expansion of “school choice” through charter schools. Obama appointed Arne Duncan, CPS CEO and Paul Vallas’s successor, to serve as the U.S. secretary of education, further elevating Chicago’s corporate-style education policies as a model for education reform efforts nationally.

Duncan oversaw Obama’s major education initiative, Race to the Top, which mirrored on the national level many of the policies that Daley and Duncan had administered in Chicago. Race to the Top required states looking for federal education funds to compete, and emphasized new standards and accountability measures, charter school expansion, and test-based assessment of teachers and schools. While Chicago policies and officials contributed to the Obama administration’s national political agenda, Obama administration officials also cycled back to Chicago—most significantly Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s White House chief of staff.

Buoyed by Obama’s blessing, Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago in 2011. Emanuel furthered Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 plans, embracing corporate education reform and “school choice” plans that opened new charter schools and “turned around,” consolidated, or closed more than 150 public schools, including the closure of approximately 50 schools in 2013— at the time the largest intentional mass closure of schools in recent U.S. history.

In engineering the school closures, Emanuel argued that the logic of corporate reorganization and the market necessitated right-sizing measures to remedy the city’s failing school system. However, Emanuel and his school officials toggled inconsistently between justifications for closing schools based on under-enrollment or “under-utilization” and closings because of academic underperformance.

As had been the case for decades, black students, parents, and communities were dissatisfied with the status quo in many of their under-resourced neighborhood schools. However, they questioned why the schools had to be closed instead of improved. The CTU and community members also questioned definitions of under-enrollment that assessed full utilization at over thirty students to a classroom. In accounts by city and school officials, the history and policies that displaced and depopulated black communities and produced under-enrolled schools were erased.

Adapted from A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago by Elizabeth Todd-Breland. Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Todd-Breland. Published by the University of North Carolina Press.  Used by permission of the publisher. 

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.