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Mayor Lightfoot promised equity for our schools, and she should put that in writing

Instead, as we bargain a new contract, the mayor’s negotiating team is seeking to roll back every gain we’ve won in the last two contracts.

In this file photo from Sept. 17, 2012, teachers picket outside of Haugan School during the strike. The teachers union is inching closer to another strike in 2019.
In this file photo from Sept. 17, 2012, teachers picket outside of Haugan School during a strike. The Chicago Teachers Union is inching closer to another strike in 2019.
Brian Jackson/Sun Times file photo

As a candidate, Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised Chicago’s students, families and educators that years of austerity, devastating budget cuts, understaffing, school closures and damaging privatization would end.

She promised equity and educational justice for school communities that have been denied both for far too long. Her platform mirrored the Chicago Teachers Union’s demand for the schools Chicago students deserve.

Yet on the first day of school, more than 700 classrooms were without a permanent teacher. Nine out of 10 majority-black schools have no librarian, while kindergarten classrooms at schools like Ashe Elementary in Chatham have 35 or more students.

School communities are desperately short of school nurses, school social workers, school psychologists, school counselors and other support staff, even as our students struggle with high levels of trauma driven by poverty and neighborhood violence. CPS has critical shortages of bilingual educators for English-language learners, in a school district where nearly half of our students are Latino.

More than 200 schools took cuts of $100,000 or more, and more than 40 schools were slammed with cuts of over $500,000 — half a million. At Juarez High School, where enrollment has grown, the mayor’s hand-picked Board of Education slashed funding by $840,000 and cut nine teachers and support staff in the budget they passed in August.

CPS continues to run afoul of federal special education law, by failing to provide special needs students with the services and supports to which they’re legally entitled — even as the district remains under state oversight for shortchanging our most vulnerable learners.

These conditions are a continued assault on the civil rights of our students, who are overwhelmingly black and brown. These distorted practices also drive terrible working conditions — and they’re unnecessary.

In 2017, when the Illinois Legislature rewrote the state’s school funding formula, CPS began receiving more than a billion dollars in annual new state revenue to lower class sizes and fund vital needs that include wrap-around services and support for special education students and English-language learners. These funds should create the schools our students deserve — yet this year CPS is investing even less in our school communities than last year.

CPS is, in essence, operating under a special deal no other Illinois school district gets: significantly higher state funding with no obligation to use those funds in the way the General Assembly intended.

Instead, as we bargain a new contract, the mayor’s negotiating team is seeking to roll back every gain we’ve won in the last two contracts.

CPS and the mayor insist on maintaining poverty wages for school clerks and teaching assistants, the backbone of our school communities. Many of these workers are black women, and many have advanced degrees. Yet two-thirds earn wages so low their children qualify for free and reduced lunches under federal poverty guidelines. Too many cannot afford Chicago’s skyrocketing housing costs.

The CTU has submitted bargaining proposals to raise the wage floor for these workers. The mayor’s team — led by the same anti-union lawyer who led contract negotiations for Rahm Emanuel and Richard Daley — has yet to agree. And the mayor’s team has rejected CTU proposals to increase ratios of social workers, school nurses and other critical staff for our general education students.

The CTU has also submitted proposals to reverse the purging of veteran black educators from our schools, who’ve been displaced by years of school closures and mass layoffs driven by mayoral control of our schools. Today, black teachers make up barely 20% of educators, and entire schools have no black teacher. Research shows that having even one black teacher substantially improves education outcomes for both black and white students. Yet the mayor’s bargaining team has rejected these proposals.

We want promises for equity and educational justice in writing in an enforceable contract — the only way we can hold CPS and the mayor to their word. We’ve lived with years of broken promises that have harmed our students, undercut our members and marginalized our school communities.

Mayor Lightfoot has an opportunity to transform our school communities in partnership with CTU educators, students and their families, by putting her promises in writing.

Jesse Sharkey is president of the Chicago Teachers Union. The Sun-Times is publishing this op-ed in the wake of an op-ed penned by Chicago school board President Miguel Del Valle that was published on Sept. 23.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.