Lynch Makes Her Move | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Lynch Makes Her Move

What did it take to send the new head of the Chicago Teachers Union into battle?


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Last May, Deborah Lynch shocked the city's political establishment when she upset the incumbent and took over as president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Since then, operatives at City Hall and the Chicago Public Schools have nervously waited for the first sign that she would break from the conciliatory, get-along style of her predecessor, Tom Reece.

That sign has finally come, as Lynch (who has dropped Walsh from her last name) launches the boldest initiative of her ten-month tenure--a proposal to eradicate a controversial state amendment known as 4.5. "The time has come to take charge on this," she says. "This is something our members feel strongly about."

The amendment, little known to the general public, denies Chicago's teachers collective-bargaining rights that most teachers around the country take for granted. "Six years of living under this law have brought home all its implications," says Lynch. "The teachers want this changed."

The amendment was attached to a larger bill in 1995 by an odd coalition of conservative activists and politicians who neither taught in nor sent their children to Chicago's public schools. At the time, Chicago's system was undergoing yet another of its periodic transformations. In this restructuring, suburban Republicans got together with Mayor Daley to undo the changes from the last time around.

It gets confusing, but the system has undergone two opposing revolutions in the last 14 years. In 1988 the state passed a law establishing local control. Each school was placed under the control of locally elected school councils made up of parents, teachers, community residents, and the principal. The LSCs were given control over budgets, principal hiring, and curriculum. But by 1995 Mayor Daley had decided he wanted to run the schools himself, particularly if he was going to be held accountable for what went on there (though it seems doubtful that Chicago voters would unseat Daley for anything, even if the schools were in ruin). So in exchange for an influx of state funds, the Republicans in the General Assembly rewrote the 1988 law, stripping the LSCs of some of their power, forcing the old board to step down, and establishing a new top position, chief executive officer. To fill that slot Daley brought in Paul Vallas, his old revenue director. (Last June, Daley fired Vallas and replaced him with Arne Duncan.)

While they were at it, the Republicans--always looking to tweak the CTU, whose members generally back Democrats--added amendment 4.5. From here on out, it said, "collective bargaining" in Chicago's schools "shall not include any of the following subjects": class size, teacher-layoff decisions, or "decisions concerning use and staffing of experimental or pilot programs." In plain English, Vallas, Daley, and the school board suddenly had much more control over teachers.

Once teachers realized what had happened, class size became a big issue. "It gets at the heart of our ability to teach effectively," says Lynch. The amendment trumped the union contract, which said the board couldn't allow more than 28 children in a primary-school class or more than 30 in a junior high or high school class. Under the contract, if teachers were handed more kids, they could file a grievance, which went before a hearing officer. "It's a check and a balance in a system that needs checks and balances," says Lynch.

But under the amendment, teachers could no longer file a grievance if the union contract on class size was broken. "At my old school [Marquette], I had 31 students in my eighth-grade class," says Lynch, who left the classroom shortly after she ousted Reece. "But unfortunately we had 35 kids in a kindergarten class, where we need low class size the most. We had 38 children in a seventh-grade class. That's outrageous. You can't expect 35 kids, particularly in a high-poverty school, to do as well as 20 to 25, where they would get more individualized attention."

Lynch says the amendment also prevents teachers from filing grievances over another hot-button issue--the board's use of private educational contractors. "The board recently passed two motions to pay about $400,000 to a company to do private tutoring," she says. "The company's going to have four kids for every tutor. They come and do reading instruction with a class of four on one. My members would love that ratio."

The amendment also gives the board free rein to "lay off or reduce in force employees." Under the contract such layoffs are subject to bargaining. Under the amendment the board can simply declare a crisis and then fire teachers. "We can't negotiate layoffs," says Lynch. "Do you know any other union that can't negotiate layoffs? That's unthinkable." And teachers are no longer allowed to file grievances over layoffs.

The amendment also limits the ability of teachers to challenge even the most senseless or arbitrary board curriculum and testing dictates. "We also can't negotiate over what's fair and useful testing for the students," says Lynch. "The board can institute any testing policy, and we have to follow. What about allowing the teachers a say in what they have to teach? Why would you take that key component out of their hands? We can use the bargaining process to negotiate good, solid educational programs."

Right after 4.5 passed, the union sued to overturn it but lost the case when a judge ruled against them. In the last few years of his reign Reece didn't make a big issue of the amendment, mostly because he'd developed a cordial relationship with Vallas--who openly backed him in his race against Lynch. "We were operating in this strange situation where we had a contract with the board but the board didn't really have to follow it," says Lynch. "Vallas assured us that he would follow it. But what if he changed his mind? What if he left and his predecessors didn't follow the contract? The point of having a contract is being assured that it's binding--otherwise we're back to a case of arbitrary and capricious administrative decisions."

She aggressively campaigned against 4.5 in her race against Reece, promising to do what she could to get rid of it. "Our members felt powerless," she says. "When the idea of 'call the union' becomes a joke, it's time for immediate action."

Lynch argues that Duncan says he wants to woo the best and brightest people to teach in Chicago, but then the board turns around and creates an authoritarian system that forces teachers to follow carefully scripted board mandates or lose their jobs. "We have excellent teachers," she says, "and excellent teachers should be treated with respect."

So far the teachers have gained support from several school-reform groups, including PURE, one of the city's largest parents' organizations. "We were pretty appalled when this legislation said the teachers basically can't do collective bargaining," says Julie Woestehoff, PURE's executive director. "They've made a strong case on this one. We always want to be supportive of teachers, not pitted against them. And in general we'd like teachers to have a stronger voice in school decision making."

Despite PURE's support, it won't be easy for the CTU to overturn 4.5. Many of the amendment's original supporters--including the editorial boards of the Sun-Times and the Tribune as well as most of the Republicans in the statehouse--still favor it. As they see it, Chicago's teachers had grown too powerful in the 80s and early 90s, and their having so much say over school matters made it harder to fire incompetent teachers.

The school board's current leaders also favor keeping 4.5, which they say is key to any further improvement in perform-ance. "It's important to look at the whole intervening years since this was enacted," says Marilyn Johnson, chief counsel for the board. "The purpose really was to re-store a greater degree of balance between the teachers' union and CPS as part of an overall effort to give CPS greater flexibility, particularly in regards to accomplishing its primary mission, which is improving student achievement."

In the days before 4.5, Johnson says, the board was at the mercy of the union on many key matters, such as determining who got to teach summer school. "It sounds like a minor thing, but it's not," she says. "We had to go by strict seniority when determining who taught summer school, even though seniority is not necessarily the measure of how dynamic or effective a teacher is."

According to her, it doesn't matter that Chicago is the only city in the country to have these kinds of collective-bargaining restrictions. "Remember," she says, "part and parcel in giving the mayor control of the schools was the legislative finding that Chicago was in an education crisis--that we were at the nadir of providing educational service from the standpoint of having a history of contentious and disruptive collective-bargaining relationships."

Johnson says Lynch has exaggerated the problems caused by 4.5 and urges teachers to have faith that the central of-fice would never do anything to harm them unfairly. "We are probably enjoying our greatest degree of collaboration with the CTU," she says, "this issue aside."

Nonetheless, Lynch says she's moving ahead with her plan. In the next few weeks she and other union leaders will travel to the statehouse to testify on behalf of state representative Willie Delgado's bill to abolish 4.5. Ultimately the decision may come down to what Mayor Daley thinks. "I talked to Arne Duncan about this, and he said it's Mayor Daley's call," she says. "I have a request to speak with the mayor about this. I think he appreciates that we're doing everything we can to make teaching in Chicago more attractive. If that's the case, we should at least have the same collective-bargaining rights everyone else does."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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