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Opinion: Dear Teachers Union, Try a little more democracy

Dear Chicago Teachers Union Leadership:

So many parents and educators I know share your members’ concerns and goals. We agree there is inequality within public schools and dangerously insufficient education funding in Illinois. Yet, many of these parents and educators don’t see how striking against a city that’s finally addressing its financial problems is the best way forward.  Or why there isn’t room in your union for alternative opinions.


Strong democratic institutions allow for differing viewpoints to consider and debate. Yet, your leadership seems to demand acceptance of one-sided “facts,” urging teachers to be “troublemakers” and bullying those who disagree. Your C.O.R.E. group took over the union in 2010 in part because you claimed there was too little room for dissent. Where’s that room now?

Decades of underfunding pensions have jeopardized needed money for schools and teachers for far too long. Yet, how many union emails address how those decisions were made years before the current mayor took office, with CTU representatives aware of the underfunding that whole time? Why wasn’t there a vote to strike then? Why only now when an administration is taking huge political risks to finally stabilize Chicago — taxing all stakeholders so that pensions can be funded, and more money can actually go toward education and teachers instead of interest payments?

Why say that teachers are being blamed rather than being asked to share responsibility for a financially devastating reality we all inherited? Isn’t that more provocative than helpful? If we want better resources for our city, more teachers in our schools, more police on the streets for our kids, then shouldn’t we all participate in finding real solutions for paying our debt? Won’t that achieve better results than a strike?

Alternatively, Republicans legislators are seeking state control and the ultimate bankruptcy of the Chicago Public Schools, so as to eradicate union contracts. Has CTU leadership discussed with teachers how striking risks playing right into their hands? What will be left of teacher pensions and benefits then?

Perhaps you’re angry because Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t Mayor Richard M. Daley — who seemed open to giving you what you asked for in the short-term, even if students and teachers would be shortchanged later. Politicians and union leaders maintained political power, but at what cost?

You claim you’ve tried to compromise, that it’s the city that won’t budge. But your website headline “Broke On Purpose” — written with blood dripping — doesn’t leave much room for teachers to consider alternatives or the fact that independent watchdogs believe the city’s most recent proposal was generous. Karen Lewis, even you thought it was fair until your power was threatened.

Why are you all afraid of teachers having the facts? Why call editorials that question your practices “anti-teacher” when so many of those editorials genuinely support teachers and students?

We so agree — Chicago teachers are well-educated, hardworking and deserve more respect.  Yet, respect also must exist within your union. It is a matter of trusting teachers with facts beyond those that suit your leadership’s political purpose. Smart, strong teachers have compelling arguments to make on all sides. Why not promote discussion and debate to ensure you get this right? Too many teachers feel afraid to say what they think.

Asking you to make room for different perspectives isn’t anti-union. Representing facts beyond your leadership’s viewpoint isn’t anti-teacher or anti-student. Being collaborative, inclusive and democratic, the very things many of us are fighting so hard to preserve during this scary election season, is exactly what good teaching, strong education and real leadership are about.

P.S. Please stop playing upon teachers’ noble inclinations that the fight for justice always demands a march or strike. Sometimes, it demands an honest discussion of the facts.

Alana Baum is a CPS parent, former Local School Council member and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

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