Friday morning I sat down with Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey for an extensive interview. We touched on a lot of issues, but there’s five biggies that came out.
1. He Thinks CPS CEO Forrest Claypool Is A “Disaster” But Says He Doesn’t Think He’s Working Hand-In-Glove With Mayor Emanuel
“I think Forrest Claypool deserves no credit. He has been a disaster. And I mean that in all seriousness. Forrest doesn’t know much about schools at all. I think he shows it in many, many ways,” said Sharkey. But when I pressed him on whether or not he and Mayor Rahm Emanuel (who have worked together since the early 1980’s) are planning out the politics of schools, he demurred.
“I think that Forrest Claypool is out of sync,” with the Mayor, said Sharkey. That said, the Mayor has done little, in Sharkey’s mind, to improve his grade from the “F” CTU gave him starting in 2011. But asked a number of ways, he seemed unwilling to unload on Emanuel like he does on Claypool.
2. He Thinks It’s Pointless To Seek State Money Until Local Revenues For Schools Are Increased First
CTU and CPS have a common cause when it comes to getting additional funding from the state, but Sharkey believes CTU should not work with CPS until Mayor Emanuel (and the city’s wealthy) commits to higher city funding first.
I asked Sharkey this question three different ways: Shouldn’t you be working together to get more state funding for Chicago schools? He refused to say CTU would work with CPS in Springfield until, “the Mayor and the city fathers of Chicago… commit to raising half a billion dollars for the schools in the city to keep the schools from going off a cliff.”
3. CPS’ Constant State of Crisis Is Damaging Confidence In Chicago Schools
Sharkey believes CPS’ continued fiscal woes are eroding the district’s brand, making CPS less attractive to parents, regardless of whatever improvements in test scores or graduation rates are being made. He lays this at the feet of Claypool in particular, since every few months Claypool announces a new financial emergency, leading Chicagoans to constantly wonder how long long the schools have until they collapse. “We’re at an inflection point now,” he says. “It’s produced a crisis of confidence. We’re seeing a trickle of people leaving the system, turning into a stream and now we worry about a flood.”
4. Despite The Financial Problems, Sharkey Thinks CPS Is Improving
“There’s plenty to be proud about with public schools,” he says. “Virtually every teacher I know has their kids in public schools. And that’s something. If you went back 30 years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case.”
Part of the problem in CPS and CTU’s relationship is that the union doesn’t give CPS enough credit when it’s doing things right, he said. “Graduation rates are up. When I first started teaching in Chicago in ‘98, we used to pull our hair about why the freshman class had 800 students in it, why the senior class had 200 students in it. Literally you had that kind of drop-off in a lot our big schools. We know a lot more about that now, we’re a lot better at getting students to complete.”
5. He Really Loves The Idea of An Elected School Board
“You gotta have some democracy there,” he says. He believes that the current school board, which is controlled and named by the Mayor, is disconnected from citizens.
And even though most Chicagoans–those without kids or who have aged out of caring about schools–would likely not pay attention to the school board, there are enough parents in Chicago that would participate, he thinks. “The people who are active in local school councils are the ones who go for report card pick up and are active in the elections. You have high participation in terms of the ones who are in and out of the schools,” and that’s enough he says.
There’s a role for aldermen, too. “Right now, the people who get the phone calls about, ‘there’s a problem in my school…’ are aldermen, and yet those aldermen have extremely little control,” he said. “That’s a problem. Schools wind up being very local issues. People need to have governance that gives them confidence that their democratic voice is being taken into account.”