Why Aren’t Education Reform Leaders in Chicago Stepping Up?

Here’s a fact: education reform (school choice, teacher accountability, high expectations and school autonomy) is the not the cause of the impending teacher strike in Chicago.

Here’s another fact: it is becoming increasingly difficult for the public to perceive that the first fact is true.

That’s because there is a sad juxtaposition playing out in Chicago today. On one hand, a crowd of protesters comprised of young people, clergy leaders and community activists march through the streets demanding that Rahm Emanuel resign his post as mayor in response to the execution of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald at the hands of a Chicago police officer and a 400 day delay in justice (brought on only by the relentless push of an independent journalist). On the other hand, the Chicago Teachers Union opens a strike authorization vote that would make a total shutdown of the majority of Chicago’s schools possible.

To date, no education reform leader has stepped up to condemn the actions of the mayor, the Chicago Police Department, the City Council or the States Attorney’s office. No education reform leader has spoken up to support the countless youth and community leaders who are in a fight for the safety, their dignity and some cases their very lives. Even with a new poll showing that 51% of Chicagoans believe that the Mayor should resign, education reform has remained silent.

One the other hand, the CTU has joined these protests. Karen Lewis has been vocal in her support of the young people that are leading this movement. The same red-shirted activists that rallied in Grant Park to celebrate their plans to close down more schools than Rahm Emanuel ever did, have been marching in the streets with the people of Chicago; building trust, developing relationships and gaining much needed public support.

The CTU has also done a wonderful job of making Rahm Emanuel the face of education reform in Chicago rather than the thousands of school leaders, classroom teachers, parents and students who have become the energy behind this movement. This has been all too easy because no leader has stepped up to distinguish this movement from Emanuel. No one has come out to demonstrate that our movement is bigger than the mayor; ours is a movement of the people.

Now, the CTU strike vote – which should be seen as the union choosing to hurt children and families in Chicago – is conveniently positioned as the “righteous” CTU vs the evil Rahm Emmanuel…and his education reform cronies.
The window of relevance is closing quickly. I pray that we don’t sit by and let baby get thrown out with the bath water.

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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.