“Corporate America sees K-12 public education as $380 billion dollars that, up until the last ten or fifteen years, they didn’t have a sizable piece of. This so-called school reform is not an education plan. It’s a business plan.”1Quoted in Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016),119.
This is how the late Karen Lewis summed up the crisis of neoliberal education reform during her acceptance speech as the new president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in 2010.
That election began perhaps the most significant shift in the history of Chicago public education, as union members rejected business as usual in favor of new leadership: the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, known as CORE.
In the following years, CORE would transform CTU from a weak, corrupt organization into a true fighting union with real power to challenge the influence of the private sector. As Lewis put it in her speech, “This election shows the unity of 30,000 educators standing strong to put business in its place: out of our schools.”
But to understand the power of CORE, we must first examine the crisis in public education that created it.
The Rise of Neoliberal Education Reform
In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary William J. Bennett called Chicago’s public schools the worst in the nation.
Bennett made the comments while in town for a closed-door meeting with a business coalition which was pushing for reform of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). He also suggested parents consider moving their children to private schools. “The public schools would ‘straighten up fast’ through competition with private schools,” he claimed. “Forty-six percent of Chicago teachers send their children to private schools […] The people who know the product best send their children elsewhere.”
Though these comments did draw righteous anger from some Chicago parents and teachers, his argument was in line with the growing movement to close public schools deemed “bad” and allow corporate interests to take control. Just a few years earlier, Reagan’s previous education secretary had commissioned a report called A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The authors sounded the alarm on what they deemed “a rising tide of mediocrity” in public education. The report called for reform, “if only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets.” This capitalist perspective, aided by language like school “competition” and an education “product,” would continue to poison the discourse for decades to come.
An honest analysis of CPS at the time would have no doubt illuminated challenges, but they were not born from a lack of “competition.” Rather, racist policies of disinvestment ensured that most public schools would underperform by traditional benchmarks, then suffer the blame for their inevitable shortcomings.
During the 1982 Community Congress, organizers pointed out that state and city leaders had created a “dual education system” where a small number of well-resourced schools served rich, white neighborhoods, leaving the majority of the city’s students in substandard conditions. State and city leaders who withheld funds from these majority Black and brown public schools (while simultaneously criticizing them) were working from the neoliberal playbook.
One teacher highlighted their economic realities in an open letter response to Bennett:
The Chicago Board of Education gives each teacher $28 a school year for supplies, but I do not know one teacher who does not spend at least five times that amount. Many teachers spend almost $1,000 of non reimbursed money a year. Mr. Bennett, if you continue to tell me and my colleagues how bad a job we’re doing, we will not improve. That kind of psychology does not work with individuals who continue to use their own paychecks to better their students’ education.
If the story of underpaid teachers spending their own money on an underfunded school sounds familiar, it is because the grip of neoliberal policy on public education has not only persisted, but tightened since the 1980’s. According to scholar Pauline Lipman, neoliberalism “involves the active intervention of the state on the side of capital, first to destroy existing institutional arrangements, and then to create a new infrastructure to facilitate capital accumulation.”2Pauline Lipman, “Making Sense of Renaissance 2010 School Policy in Chicago: Race, Class, and the Cultural Politics of Neoliberal Urban Restructuring,” A Great Cities Institute Working Paper, January 2009. Destroying Chicago’s existing schools first required an intentional, negative characterization. “Chicago’s public schools have been positioned in the nation’s imagination as, at best, charity cases deserving our sympathy,” wrote Eve Ewing. “At worst they are a malignant force to be ignored if you can or snuffed out altogether if you can come up with something better.”
Comments like Bennett’s insult, coupled with the systemic challenges forced on these communities, operate within this imagination to pathologize the oppressed and pave the way for school reform through a corporate lens. Since the 1980’s, the ruling class has continued to criticize public education as a pretext for instituting anti-teacher reforms that open the door for privatization. In Chicago, the effects of this reform became especially devastating during years when union leadership failed to meaningfully fight back.
The same year Bennett visited Chicago was also a significant time for the CTU; 1987 marked their last strike for a quarter century.
The following twenty-five years saw, according to Jane McAlevey,“the CTU’s steady decline from a once mighty and militant union to a weak, concession-prone union-in-name-only.”3McAlevey, No Shortcuts, 104. As union leaders gave up power, politicians and corporate bosses were ready to seize it.
In 1988, the Illinois legislature passed the Chicago School Reform Act, which did include some pro-community aspects, like the establishment of Local School Councils (LSCs). However, the law barred teachers from running for the council as parents or community members. It “redefined them as ‘only’ workers, denying them of their full status in society as worker, parent, community member, stripping them of parenthood, stripping them of neighborhood—a new constraint in the name of community control,” said McAlevey.4McAlevey, No Shortcuts, 105.
The Reform Act took effect just weeks into Richard M. Daley’s twenty-two year reign as mayor. In his inauguration speech, he said, “Good schools are the foundation upon which any city is built. Today, our foundation is crumbling, and nothing short of genuine school reform will repair it.” For Daley, the source of this “reform” was clear, as he stated, “we will be asking the business community, which has a huge stake in the quality of public education, to accept more of the burden for turning this school system around.” Over the following decades, Daley would make good on the promise to hand schools over to big business. The attack on CPS had officially begun.
By 1995, the Republican-led state legislature passed the Amendatory Act to permit privatization in Chicago public schools for the first time and lay the groundwork for charter schools. The act also took away teachers’ collective bargaining rights around schedules, class size, and more. Daley followed suit in Chicago by continuing the anti-union overhaul: making strikes illegal for eighteen months, shrinking the board of education, and increasing the authority of his office. To clearly brand this new era, Chicago schools would no longer have a superintendent, they would be led by a “CEO.”
In 1997, the first charter school opened in Chicago, and by 2003 there were 30. The next year, city leaders felt bold enough to announce their biggest attack yet: the Renaissance 2010 plan.
Turning Schools into a Business: The Renaissance 2010 Plan
CPS CEO Arne Duncan presented Renaissance 2010 as a major, years-long project that would usher in a new era by closing neighborhood schools and opening 100 “high-performing” replacements. However, it was no secret that the plan had not been authored by elected officials and certainly not by educators and community members. Renaissance 2010 was initially proposed by the Commercial Club of Chicago (CCC), a group of financial leaders looking to expand their influence. Daley and Duncan even announced the plan at a CCC event, promising to replace “failing” schools primarily with new charter schools, operated by privately owned management companies. The CCC, for their part, kicked in $70 million for the project.
The dual effects of school closings and new charter schools may have been beneficial to the wealthy few, but for the impacted communities they were disastrous. According to Lipman, Renaissance 2010 played “a significant role in displacement, gentrification, and the exclusion of working-class and low-income people of color who [were] being pushed to the city outskirts and beyond.”
The first phase of the plan required shutting down public schools and displacing those communities, a tactic employed both by Daley and his successor Rahm Emanuel. Writing about Emanuel’s school closures, Eve Ewing explains,
There is the symbolic weight of a school as a bastion of community pride, and also the fear that losing the school means conceding a battle in a much larger ideological war over the future of a city and who gets to claim it. There is the need to consider that losing the school represents another assault in a long line of racist attacks against a people, part of a history of levying harmful policies against them, blaming them for the aftermath, then having the audacity to pretend none of it really happened.5Eve L. Ewing, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 159.
These closures also played a functional role in schemes of racist gentrification. As the real estate market looks to flip cheap land into profit through “renewal,” the people living there are often seen as an impediment. Low-income Black families are “from the standpoint of capital, largely superfluous in the new economy, “threatening” to corporate and tourist culture, and sitting on what has become very valuable land.”6Lipman, “Making Sense of Renaissance 2010.” Market forces combined with public policies to push them out, such as Daley’s Plan for Transformation which demolished 17,000 units of public housing. Once residents were forced to leave, leaders would claim the local school was “underutilized” and ripe for closing.7Ewing, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, 57. Shutting down a “bad” public school is itself an act of further displacement and often part of “rebranding” the neighborhood for potential new customers.
The second part of Renaissance 2010 involved opening charter schools, which receive taxpayer funding but are operated by independent groups outside the purview of the school system. Charters are governed by unelected boards, so they face little accountability from parents and communities. When corporate charter companies took the helm of these new schools, capital got its foot in the door of a public institution and gained a governing role in education. Perhaps most critically, a majority of charter schools are non-union.
One thing that makes charter schools so devious is that proponents often speak to legitimate community needs. For teachers, they promised more independence and agency. For parents worried about their child’s prospects, charter school options were framed as “a way out” of the neighborhood and offered the illusion of self-determination in a system that limited their options for so long. This was particularly true for many Black parents, who were forced to navigate a hostile terrain of options and had legitimate grievances with segregated public schools. According to Elizabeth Todd-Breland, corporate reformers worked by “obscuring and appropriating the intentions of a Black self-determinist politics of Black achievement.”8Elizabeth Todd-Breland, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago since the 1960s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 181. With rhetoric about school choice in the marketplace, the Renaissance 2010 architects ultimately shifted the responsibility for systemic racism onto Black and brown parents. Their framing relied on heinous capitalist logic: It’s not our fault you’re suffering, you should just be a smarter shopper.
These punishing reforms would also lay groundwork for change at the national level. After leading the charge for privatization in Chicago, Arne Duncan went on to serve as education secretary under Obama. During the Obama administration, the proportion of US public school students in charter schools doubled, thanks in part to his signature $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition which gave states funds in exchange for various reforms, including charter expansion.
Over the course of several decades, from Reagan through Obama, the ruling class had ushered in an era of change that saw public education adopt for-profit principles and urban schools transform into new markets for capital. Perhaps no city felt this change as deeply as Chicago.
The rise of neoliberal reform left a staggering modern-day impact: “In the time it has taken for a child to grow up in Chicago, city leaders have either closed or radically shaken up some 200 public schools—nearly a third of the entire district […] 70,160 children—the vast majority of them black—have seen their schools closed or all staff in them fired,” reported WBEZ.
For Chicago teachers, this was a historic era of corporate influence that undermined their union and their work as educators. Throughout all the challenges of this period, teachers, students, and community members fought admirably to protect public schools and demand more from their city. For many years though, CTU leadership seemed unable, and at times unwilling, to seriously challenge this onslaught of neoliberal reform on public education.
However, as these political storms raged across the city, something new was developing below the surface–a challenge from within the union.
The Rise of CORE
The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) grew organically out of the self-organization of teachers in response to Daley-era education reform. Union members such as Karen Lewis, Jesse Sharkey, Michael Brunson, Jackson Potter, Al Ramirez, and Jen Johnson began to meet each other in 2007 and 2008 in response to school closures across the city.9Alexandra Bradbury et al., How To Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers (Detroit, MI: Labor Notes, 2014), 14-17. Resistance to Renaissance 2010 had at that point mostly been organized by community organizations such as Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), Pilsen Alliance, and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), which in September 2004 sued the school district over the plan’s impact on homeless students.
Some of the rank-and-file members who formed CORE came directly from schools slated to be closed, while others came from underresourced schools that they imagined could be next on the chopping block. They shared a common understanding that the union leadership was doing little to oppose these closings, and a belief that by organizing themselves they would be able to develop new methods of resisting the school district’s changes. One of their first activities was forming a study group to read books such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which contextualizes instances of converting public schools into charters in a decades-long campaign by US neoliberals to privatize social goods.
CORE’s early political activity was informed by community organizations like KOCO who opposed school closings (CORE, KOCO, and several other community organizations would later form a coalition, the Grassroots Education Movement). In conjunction with community allies, CORE engaged in direct action such as protests and shouting down speakers at hearings, and developed a critique of education reform that connected school closings to other issues in Chicago, like the underdevelopment of Black and brown neighborhoods, gentrification, and financialization.
Antiracist organizing would form a central part of CORE’s work going forward. CORE members like Brandon Johnson and Tara Stamps formed connections with teachers such as Dr. Grady Jordan who had fought for Black representation in CTU in the 1960s as part of the Black Teachers Caucus.10Todd-Breland, A Political Education, 231. Although Black organizing within CTU was in decline throughout the 1990s and 2000s (like CTU militancy in general), for decades Chicago has been home to a tradition of what Elizabeth Todd-Breland calls “Black education reformers” who have combined the fight for their own advancement as educators with the struggle to improve Black children’s education.11Todd-Breland, A Political Education, 6. Many of CORE’s activities exhibited that same dual character, like when they filed complaints in both 2009 and 2012 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arguing that school closings did not just disproportionately affect Black students, but laid off disproportionate numbers of Black teachers in the process.12Bradbury et al., How To Jump-Start Your Union, 26, 106.
Within the union, the initial purpose of CORE was to agitate the leadership to act in the face of education reform. They made attempts to engage with the current union leadership, for example giving then-CTU-president Marilyn Stewart a speaking spot at a January 2009 “Education Summit” they put on to rally teachers and the community against school closings.13Bradbury et al., How To Jump-Start Your Union, 24. As CORE continued to organize, they realized that the current union leadership had no appetite for challenging the school board. Rank and file members of the CTU, on the other hand, were hungry to fight back against neoliberal education reform. The “Education Summit” organized by CORE drew over 500 people, against organizers’ expectations for a crowd of 100-200, and the fact that that night a blizzard was blowing over Chicago.
By early 2010, members of CORE fully embraced the idea of replacing the union leadership and had selected a slate of candidates. Their choice for president was a teacher who, as a CPS student in the fall of 1968, had walked out of Kenwood High School with other Black students to demand “more Black teachers and administrators” and “improved facilities at the predominantly Black schools in the city.”14Todd-Breland, A Political Education, 219. Karen Lewis, whose twenty-plus year career as a chemistry teacher in CPS coincided with the rise of neoliberal education reform, would in many ways become the face of the CTU’s transformation into a fighting social justice union in her eight years as president.
CORE at that point had roughly 100 members, who got to work visiting schools, making connections with current union delegates and other teachers, and introducing CORE’s platform. They continued their campaign against school closings and budget cuts, for instance planning a “Save Our Schools” rally that compared the public services budget shortfall claimed by then-CEO of CPS Ron Huberman with the amount of money that was spent on charters and contract schools, high-stakes testing, and TIF money that the city granted to developers. The rally, drawing approximately 5,000 members, showed the advantage of organizing on substantive social justice issues even in the midst of an electoral campaign. It took place between the first round of the election and the run-off, introducing the caucus to union members they had not yet reached in their electoral campaign. In the first round of voting, the incumbent United Progressive Caucus (UPC) got 36% of the vote, CORE got 36%, and three other slates split the remainder, forcing the election into a run-off. In the run-off, CORE’s top officer candidates won 59% of the vote, decisively making them the new leadership of the union.
CORE at Work: The Transformation of the CTU
Gaining the leadership was an immense change for CORE, one they no doubt approached with caution. It was not unheard of, in the history of the US labor movement, for union leadership to betray those same rank-and-file movements who put them into power. In an early CORE study group, members had read Hell on Wheels: The Success & Failure of Reform in Transport Workers Local 100 which told the cautionary story of how officers from a reform caucus had turned on the rank and file as soon as they assumed the leadership of a NYC bus and subway drivers union. CORE implemented many changes to turn CTU into a truly “member driven union,” per its first bylaw. CORE maintained itself as a caucus within CTU, to serve as a hub of rank-and-file organizing and as a check on union leadership. Additionally, the new leadership of CTU lowered union officers’ salaries to match the salaries of the rank-and-file, and staffed most positions within the union through recruiting CTU teachers and professionals, as opposed to hiring external union staffers.
Some of those rank-and-file recruits, “on loan” from their schools, were hired to run CTU’s two new Organizing and Research Departments.15Bradbury et al., How To Jump-Start Your Union, 54. CTU began to hold trainings and summer internship programs to teach the basics of organizing: how to map relationships within a school, how to ask good questions to understand problems teachers and professionals were having in their school, and how to have organizing conversations to motivate members to take concrete steps toward solving their problems. Traditional roles within the union like school delegates and district supervisors were also re-examined. Expectations for members in those roles had previously been bureaucratic and top-down; a main job of delegates was to attend a monthly meeting and distribute that information to their coworkers. The CTU under CORE’s direction developed a base of delegates who could organize against the hyper-specific issues their schools were facing, getting coworkers to solve issues with their administration before those issues evolved into a grievance. In this way, CORE was able to develop a layer of members who could act without taking orders from above, and whose expertise in their own schools could inform the direction of the union.
In turn, the CTU linked these local struggles to a larger narrative about the future of Chicago public schools. The election of Rahm Emanuel, who ran on an explicitly anti-teachers-union platform, radicalized even more members. One part of his platform was to elongate the school day, without a proportional increase in teacher pay. The counterposition CTU developed was simple—reformers like Emanuel wanted to lengthen an already under-resourced school day, while the union was fighting to add resources to schools. This fight was just one example of CTU developing their own platform for education reform, best captured in their February 2012 report The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve, which argued for reduced class sizes, increased wrap-around services like nurses and social workers, and a curriculum that included art classes, gym, and language classes instead of more tests.
The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve notably included a full-throated critique of the “intense segregation” of CPS. It referred to “the apartheid-like system” of creating “schools that have more than 90% of their student body composed of the same ethnicity,” and the vast differences in pedagogy between schools with students from lower-income families and selective schools for students from higher-income backgrounds. Their critique of “education apartheid” was years in the making, from when CORE activists rubbed elbows with community groups protesting the closures of mostly Black and brown schools. CTU’s forthright critique of CPS would be integral when they went on strike, because it gave rank-and-file members the go-ahead to honestly speak with parents about the reality of their childrens’ underfunded classrooms.
The Strike Heard ‘Round the World: CTU 2012
In response to this underresourcing and Emanuel’s attacks, Chicago teachers voted in early June 2012 to go on strike the following September. The recently-passed Senate Bill 7 had required CTU win 75% of the entire membership to authorize the strike, meaning if voter turnout was low, the strike could not go on.16Micah Uetricht, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2014), 61. But after 2 years of preparation, the CTU under the leadership of CORE was able to turn out almost all of their membership, with 90% of all teachers voting to authorize the strike.
The high threshold for turnout required mass organizing on the part of the union, and the result was a rank-and-file that was energized, politically prepared, and capable of self-organization when the strike began on September 10th. The most enduring images of the strike are from afternoon rallies that CTU held in the Loop: tens of thousands of teachers and supporters, clad in red, holding signs decrying Emanuel’s vision for free market reform. But perhaps even more important were the pickets and marches that strike captains and teachers arranged within their own neighborhood schools. These events created venues where CTU members could directly speak to the parents of their students and other community members. Despite the efforts of the mayor to drive a wedge between parents and teachers, a poll on the fourth day of striking showed that the union held the support of 66% of CPS parents.
On Sunday, six days after the beginning of the strike, the bargaining unit came to a final proposal with the school district. But in a testament to the rank-and-file’s newfound ownership of the union, delegates voted to continue the strike for two days so they could review the contract.17Uetricht, Strike for America, 73. The next two days of the strike saw members forming study groups instead of marching as they pored over the details of the contract. On Tuesday, September 18th, the House of Delegates voted to end the strike, and two weeks later the contract was ratified.
The 2012 strike is remembered as a historic win for the CTU. The action upended decades of manufactured “common sense” that said that privatization would create better schools, that teachers unions were responsible for the problems in public education, and that parents and communities were unwilling to support teachers on strike. Nationally, it animated CORE-like caucuses to form in Los Angeles, Newark, and New York City and inspired the “Red State Revolt” strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma in 2018. The contract itself was a mixed victory, but CTU succeeded in beating back the worst of Emanuel’s agenda. They prevented the district from establishing merit pay, and kept to a minimum the extent to which teacher evaluations would be based on student test scores.
In 2013, Emanuel would go on to close fifty Chicago public schools in a move many considered retribution for the strike. CTU and community groups, who at this point had been fighting school closures for the better part of a decade, continued using direct action to oppose these closures: holding rallies, shouting down administrators at hearings, and occupying City Hall. The effect of this resistance was meager, only stopping four closings and postponing three others. Ultimately, the decision to close schools rested with the mayor-appointed school board. Free market education reformers had a distinct advantage in their clashes with CTU, having designed the battlefield on which they fought.
The Struggle Continues
CTU has remained under the leadership of CORE since 2010. Despite the mayorship changing from Rahm Emanuel to Lori Lightfoot in 2019, CTU’s contract fight that same year showed that they would still have to fight for their vision of education justice. They went on strike alongside 7,500 school workers from SEIU Local 73 and Chicago Park District employees, who in 2012 had been used to provide services to students while CTU members were on the picket lines. The 2019 strike lasted eleven days, and CTU won smaller class sizes, full-time staff for homeless students, and 180 case-manager positions. They also won 16 percent raises for teachers and 40 percent raises for some support-staff.
Additionally, CTU and community groups like KOCO have in recent years notched legislative wins at the state level that tilt the balance of power away from the mayor. In April 2021, they won a bill to roll back the parts of the 1995 Amendatory act that designated pay and benefits as the only “mandatory” subjects that CTU could legally bargain over. In July 2021, the governor signed a bill to replace the mayor-appointed school board with an elected one, although it will not be until 2026 that all twenty-one members of the school board will be elected. That bill also included a moratorium on school closings until 2025.
Predictably, these wins have made CTU a frequent target of Mayor Lightfoot, who has repeatedly tried to drive a wedge between CTU and parents on the issue of in-person classes during the pandemic. Other ruling class institutions like the Chicago Tribune have also taken issue with the union bargaining for anything beyond pay and benefits. This critique of social justice unionism has even been echoed within the union by the Members First caucus, who are running against CORE in this year’s union elections. One can imagine that Chicago’s business class would prefer a union leadership that does not fight for improved school conditions, and in February, it came to light that a major ally of Lori Lightfoot was running online advertisements to support the Members First caucus.
The history of CORE itself is the best rebuttal to the claims that CTU has overextended itself by fighting for better schools. CORE emerged precisely because previous CTU leadership had given up on fighting for anything beyond modest raises, and as a result did little to stop charter school expansion and public school closures. Although the particular details of the struggle have shifted over the past decade—school closures are temporarily paused, and Rahm Emanuel is now persona non grata in Chicago—the underlying fight against racism and classism in education continues.
CORE was built on the idea that rank-and-file union members could fight alongside the community against underfunding, segregation, and neoliberal education reform. The victories of the CTU since 2010 and the transformation of the CTU into a union that stands up for teachers, students, and parents have shown that this fight can be won. But the attacks on public education continue. Despite the gains of CTU in past years, there is still much work to be done to pursue their vision of fully-funded public schools. Until then, rank-and-file workers and community members will be the ones demanding, and creating, the schools Chicago’s students deserve.