Chicago Mayor Candidates Seek CTU Support at December 16 forum

The Chicago Teachers Union hosted the Mayoral Candidates Forum at the Operating Engineers Hall on Thursday, December 16, 2010, before a packed crowd of more than 600 people, most but not all of them teachers. Former US Senator Carol Moseley Braun, City Clerk Miguel Del Valle, State Sen. Rev. James Meeks, former President of the Chicago Board of Education Gery Chico and political activist William Walls were there and presented their positions on how they would support public education. One other leading candidates, Congressman Danny Davis, sent his support but said he had to be in Washington, D.C. because of important voting that was taking place in the U.S. House of Representatives. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who claims to be the leading candidate at this time (based on corporate media polling) snubbed the event.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis (above left) greets the crowd at the CTU mayoral forum at the Operating Engineers Union hall of December 16, 2010. The candidates, back to camera, are seated to Lewis's right. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt."Public education is a public good and it reflects who we are as a community," Braun said in her opening remarks. "My platform for education consists of two words: neighborhood schools."

Del Valle said education has been his passion and the first bill he sponsored as a state senator helped to create local school councils.

Meeks made his claim that all his bills focus on funding for public education and that, "I'll continue to fight for public education."

Former Chicago 'School Reform Board of Trustees' President Gery Chico, who worked with Paul Vallas from 1995 when the Amendatory Act became law until Vallas's resignation in June 2001, told the teachers' union forum that he was the best qualified for the job of mayor because he has been President of the school board and the Park District Board and the Board of the City Colleges. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Chico touted his good working relationship with teachers when he was president of the board.

Walls, the outside candidate who did not participate in the previous night's educational forum at Walter Payton High School hosted by Raise Your Hand, said he wanted to make Chicago the future center of nano-technology, and that teachers should be rewarded, not demoted.

Once again the two missing candidates were front runner Rahm Emmanuel, who never responded to the CTU's invitation to participate, and US Rep. Danny Davis, who was still in Washington DC for an important vote. Moderator WVON's Cliff Kelly read a letter from Davis which stated he would back an elected school board, make sure the next head of the schools has an education background and make sure that the proliferation of charter schools will not hurt public education.

The first question, should there be an elected school board?

All the candidates responded that it is essential to name a superintendent with an educational background. However, it was only Braun who answered the question by stating that she fought to make sure Mayor Harold Washington would keep control of the schools for accountability reasons, but the selection was and should still be based on a nominating commission.

The five candidates who showed up at the mayoral forum on December 16 were (left to right) Carol Moseley Braun, Miguel Del Valle, James Meeks, Gery Chico and William ("Doc") Walls. At the podium is Cliff Kelley, who moderated the event. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The next question focused on the education reform commission that was hastily put together by Stand for Children, with lots of Bill Gates money, which is seeking legislation to hold teachers more accoutable, prevent unsatisfactory teachers from ever teaching again in Illinois and remove the right of teachers to strike.

Meeks said the teachers and the teachers union should be at the table of any reforms, Chico and Del Valle said it is wrong to "fast track" any important legislation, and Walls said "we need to stop demonizing teachers." Braun pointed out that every time reforms are mentioned, there is never any money to go with it.

"It's always about privatization," Braun said. "They just want to privatize the system and give it to corporate America."

The third question was about the Tax Increment Financing districts or TIFs, which the CTU has been fighting valiantly against for some time. Every candidate stated the TIF money should only go to "blighted areas" of the city and that it is wrong to give TIF monies to wealthy areas of the city. None of them called for the TIF system to be ended, including Braun, who the night before stated that there should be a moratorium on TIFs.

Chicago City Clerk Miguel DelValle (right) took part in the December 16, 2010, forum and then stayed to answer questions from reporters and teachers. The only candidate who rushed out was James Meeks, who seems to be in a hurry to avoid media questions about his earlier statement (not made at the mayoral forum) that affirmative action contracts should only apply to African American males. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Del Valle made a logical observation when he noted midway through the forum that "we're all really saying the same things." He then agreed with Meeks and others that TIFs need to be transparent.

The next question equated the charter school dilemma to the parking meter scandal — what can be done to put more oversight on the charter schools which are being heavily promoted by President Obama on down to the outgoing mayor.

Del Valle asked the essential rhetorical question — how many charter schools in the city have been closed? "Why hasn't it happened," he asked. "Because they don't want accountability."

All the candidates stated that charter schools need to be held accoutable, while the Meeks balloon — which was floating high the night before on the northside — was deflated when he refused to address the question of vouchers, which Del Valle raised just before he spoke, prompting many in the audience to boo. Meeks glared ahead and said vouchers was not the question.

Former state legislator and U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun offered several concrete proposals to the teachers, as well as pointing out that she had experience in local, state and national government, as well as in international relations (she had been a U.S. Ambassador). Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.In fact, when this reporter asked Meeks the previous night, if he supports full funding for public education, then why does he support vouchers which takes money away from the public schools. Meeks explained that the vouchers only take $4,000 from the student's $11,000 public money, and that one less student for the public schools will help relieve overcrowding. The fact is, less student for the public schools, means less money as well.

Meeks, ever the grandstanding politician, was lucky he did not have to face up to the ugly statement he made earlier about the Chicago Teachers Union being the worse gang in the city. He told Substance that he made that statement because the union caused the state to lose out on Race to the Top funding because it wouldn't agree to evaluating teachers on test scores.

Unlike the previous night's mayoral forum when he stayed to answer questions and be interviewed by Fox News about a statement he made that minority contracts should not include white women, the minister who says he wants to work with the teachers union immediately darted out of the union hall as soon as the forum ended. All the other candidates stayed to answer questions and shake hands.

Walls was perhaps most creative in his answer to the question about tying teachers' evaluations to a test score.

"You can train a monkey to pass a test," Walls said, to boisterous laughter. "We need to teach them to be fearless."

Illinois State Senator James Meeks dodged questions about his controversial support (praised by the Chicago Tribune) for vouchers against the public schools. Meeks was not asked about his claim, a year earlier at Operation PUSH, that the Chicago Teachers Union was a worse gang than the Vice Lords or Gangster Disciples. When the forum ended, Meeks literally ran out of the union hall to avoid TV reporters, who were trying to ask him about his earlier comments regarding affirmative action city contracts. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The essential urban teacher question focused on the difficulties inner city teachers face with children who are sometimes victims of parental abuse, drug or substance abuse, neglect, malnutrition and other factors that make learning difficult. All the candidates spoke about the need to increase wrap around services, such as hiring back the truancy officers, more social workers and more counselors. But it was Chico who sounded to speak straight from the heart.

"I have lots of talks with my son who was a pre-school teacher at Smyth Elementary school," Chico said. "It is very challenging when the parents are unemployed and they need as much help as possible. These conditions are horrendous."

Braun made two important points that, in this reporter's mind, stood out from all the other candidates. First, she said the money is there. The fact that the Chicago Public Schools was able to allocate funds ($150 million) to build a new Jones College Prep High School and approve an extra $57 million to the area offices in the face of an alleged $1 billion deficit that demanded laying off many teachers proved her point.

WVON Radio host Cliff Kelley noted for the audience that one of the major candidates for mayor, Rahm Emanuel, snubbed the teachers' forum, although a place card had been created for him. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.While candidates Meeks, Walls and Del Valle blamed the state for not properly funding education in the city, it was Braun who made her second point loud and clear for the audience of public education supporters.

"We need to better deploy our resources," she said. "If we can fund a military budget, we can fund our schools."

Walls had the most controversial idea on how to fund the schools — that the audience of public education supporters certainly didn't buy — "Naming Rights" for the schools. "If they give a lot of money, I have no problem naming it Boeing High School," he said.

One of the things that surprised many observers about the proposals of William "Doc" Walls was his idea that Chicago could become a center for a new industry — nanotechnology. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The previous night Meeks said he supported vouchers because the competition — the same reason former schools chief Arne Duncan gave for charter schools — will make the public schools better. He also said that the vouchers are needed now because students can't wait seven years for the system to be fixed.

So in his closing remarks at the teachers union forum, he said he has an 8 year plan for how he and the Chicago Teachers Union will fix the schools.

Chicago teacher Stacy Davis-Gates (above at podium) was one of three teachers who asked questions that had been compiled from the audience following the general questions asked by moderator Cliff Kelley (above left). Davis-Gates is chair of the CTU Political Action Committee (PAC). Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. I guess now we can wait.

Congressman Danny K. Davis had planned to participate but was held in Washington, DC for the vote in the House of Representatives on the President's tax bill. Davis sent a message that was read to the group by Cliff Kelley stating his longstanding support for public education, teachers, and the teachers' union.

In addition to the Chicago Teachers Union, sponsors of the event were Access Living, Cook County College Teachers Union Local 1600, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 143, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 and UNITE-HERE Local 1. SEIU, IUOE, and UNITE-HERE represent workers working for the Chicago Public Schools. According to the CTU website, more than 600 people attended the event. 