The Chicago Teachers Union may once have aimed at improving the lives of teachers and students, but it is now a hyper-political machine that strives for one thing: power. The union’s hostile takeover of Chicago politics and its abdication of responsibility for educating children have been more than a decade in the making. The process began in 2010, when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, took leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
Since CORE’s ascension, the school district’s demands on taxpayers have ballooned by 55 percent, while the number of students the district serves has shrunk by more than 20 percent. That translates to $2.5 billion more from taxpayers and a loss of more than 87,000 students, driven by a significant decline of black and Hispanic students. Many children who remain in the schools have no escape route; district-wide, all students have registered declines in academic performance. Reading and math proficiency scores have fallen by as much as 30 percent during the past decade, according to data obtained from the Illinois State Board of Education. At the end of the past school year, just 20 percent of third- through eighth-grade students on average were proficient in reading; only 15 percent were proficient in math.
This plummeting performance owes to CTU’s determination to focus on politics rather than on students. Just consider the union’s actions. Since CORE’s takeover, CTU has implemented an agenda of radical political stunts and strikes. Before CORE’s takeover of the union, Chicago hadn’t seen a teachers’ strike for 25 years. In a dozen years under CORE’s control, CTU has gone on strike twice and walked out on students three more times. Deterioration in education quality and disruptions to learning followed.
The union illegally walked out on students over the district’s Covid-19 protocols, giving parents mere hours after 11 p.m., as most were asleep, to scramble for a back-up plan for their school-age kids. CORE used these stoppages as opportunities to make political statements or to advance its political agenda. Its militant agenda has included demands to defund the police and banks, pushes for affordable housing during contract negotiations, and other social-justice items.
CTU has also invested heavily in political campaigns, giving more than $17 million to state and local election committees since CORE took over. In 2021, only 19 percent of CTU spending—$5.9 million of $31 million—was used to represent teachers, according to reports that the CTU filed with the Department of Labor. The rest went to politics, administration, and other union leadership priorities. Last year, the CTU spent more than $1 million on political activities and lobbying, which doesn’t include money spent by its political action committee.
A study conducted by the Illinois Policy Institute found that the CTU has funded half of sitting lawmakers in the General Assembly and 68 percent of sitting aldermen in Chicago. The union has contributed to Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, and Chicago Ward 20’s Democratic Socialist alderman, Jeanette Taylor.
These investments have paid off for the union. Illinois voters passed the CTU-backed Amendment 1 in November, a change to the Illinois constitution that hands government unions unprecedented bargaining power. This amendment will solidify government unions’ chokehold on Illinois, crippling opportunities to provide tax relief for overburdened Illinoisans or implement other much-needed government reforms.
The CTU’s next target is the Chicago mayor’s office. Mayor Lori Lightfoot was never the CTU’s pick, and now she is facing off with Brandon Johnson in the mayoral election. Johnson was a CTU member and lobbyist who has already received more than $931,000 from the union for his campaign. (The American Federation of Teachers has also given more than $1 million to Johnson’s campaign.) Lightfoot told the New York Times in 2021 that the CTU has ambitions to “take over running the city government.” She’s right.
Johnson’s proposed tax-the-rich plan includes millions in tax hikes and far-left policies endorsed by United Working Families, a progressive group affiliated with the CTU. Should Johnson win and get his plan enacted, suburban residents and Chicago businesses would pick up the tab for the $800 million proposal. Ten years ago, at the Socialism 2013 Conference in Chicago, Johnson described how his coalition had “built a consciousness” of socialist ideals for CTU teachers by implementing a red dress code on Fridays. The CTU has thus been exposing the city’s public school students to this political ideology. Imagine the outcry if a group used similar tactics to boost a religion in public schools.
This trend is not confined to Illinois. The CTU has become the national model for inspiring politically motivated labor movements. The CTU claims that teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and California were inspired by its 2012 strike. The Red for Ed movement brought strikes “back from the dead” and spread across the nation.
For concerned Chicago parents and citizens, the key to fighting the CTU’s militancy is to stay vigilant, stay involved, and attend local school board meetings. Parents should be involved in their children’s education, and taxpayers have the right to see how the district is spending their tax dollars. City voters must also stay informed about the candidates or legislation that special-interest groups like the CTU are funding.
Chicagoans hoping for change can make their voices heard this election season. The mayoral election is an opportunity to ask whether CORE’s leadership of the CTU best serves Chicago students. Judging by public schools’ academic and enrollment declines, as well as the union’s preference for political militancy over educational excellence, that question should not be hard to answer.
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