Teachers Unions Need to Stop Playing the ‘Class Card’

I’ve heard it too many times.

As I’ve worked to create greater access to high quality schools for the children in the most underserved communities in Chicago, it’s one of key arguments they use:

“The big corporations are trying to make a profit off of our children…”

“The big dollar school reformers don’t really understand what’s going on in poor communities…”

But, the underlying implication is always the same: Modern education is class warfare. Rich is bad. Poor is good.

This positions the teachers union as the organization of the poor, for the poor and by the poor. It implies they are the very last line of defense against wealthy education reformers who have turned their greedy eyes on the inner city as the next great bastion of financial gain.

So, I for one am happy that a recent investigative story from the Chicago Sun-Times is starting to bring the realities of this well-executed, but totally misleading frame into view. The fact is that like most major teachers unions in the country, the Chicago Teachers Union is as a big of an operation as most of the “corporate interests” that have gotten involved on the reform side the conversation.

The CTU does not run like the small neighborhood organizations where I learned community organizing. We struggled to keep enough voluntary dues and grant dollars coming in to keep the lights on and a small, undercompensated staff paid.

The CTU receives and spends millions of dollars in compulsory income to push their agenda in the education world. And with an average income above $80,000 per year, I can’t imagine that any of the folks who work for the CTU are living the day-to-day realities that I grew up with in a household where dad had no high school diploma and a drug problem and mom had no college degree and five kids to raise while working full-time to make ends meet. I can’t imagine that their experiences are like those of the families in Austin where the average income per capita is less than $16,000 per year, or Englewood where that same measure is less than $12,000 per year.

Am I saying that the CTU has no right to advocate on behalf of these communities? Absolutely not. So many of the good people involved with the CTU organization grew up in these communities, just like I did. So many of them serve in these communities, worship there and through various experiences have developed a heart for the people who live there.

My point is that many of us on the “reform” side have these same deep neighborhood roots. And it is completely disingenuous to paint one group as rich and removed and the other as under-resourced and connected.

To borrow a phrase from Bobby Brown and the late, great Whitney Houston, “We’ve got something in common.”

Yes, school reformers are building relationships between well-resourced people and organizations to do what we believe will help the families and communities we care about. And it turns out that the CTU is doing the same thing.
Maybe we can agree that leveraging resources for the good of under- resourced areas is a good strategy. Maybe we can keep our debates on the merits and avoid playing the “class card” altogether.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.