CORE’s Coming Out Party

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis recounts the creation of her union’s CORE caucus.

Sarah Jane Rhee /

In 2006, I left the largest high school in Chicago — Lane Tech, a selective enrollment high school with a diverse student body — for another selective enrollment school, King, with a predominantly African-American population.

Still a high school chemistry teacher, my work at Lane as a delegate to the Chicago Teachers Union’s governing body, the House of Delegates, brought me into deep conflict with the principal, who I felt was a bully, unethical, and hypocritical. While he was never able to retaliate against me, he went after my closest friends and colleagues. So I left.

When I got to King, the delegate (with whom I had served on the Executive Board) wanted some support; I, however, wanted to keep a low profile. But she had won election to the executive board of PACT (Pro-Active Caucus of Teachers and School Employees), a reform caucus that challenged the stranglehold the UPC (United Progressive Caucus) had on CTU leadership. I joined pact in 2001 — the same year the caucus won the election and took control of the union.

When the contract then-president Debbie Lynch negotiated initially failed to pass a vote by union membership, the final contract was relentlessly used to attack her. In 2004, when pact lost to the “New UPC,” the high school functional vice-presidents of pact, including me, won seats on the union’s executive board.

My time there was, to say the least, depressing. PACT members were isolated and not allowed to participate in real union governance. The union’s executive board meetings were dry-run rehearsals for carrying out the UPC leadership’s will at forthcoming House of Delegate meetings and were a complete waste of time and energy. There was no strategy for moving the union forward; for fighting against then–Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan’s “Renaissance 2010,” the plan for closing schools and opening charter, contract, and performance schools (and the precursor to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program).

Instead of communicating a plan to move the union in a different direction, the UPC seemed to focus on ensuring their re-election. They spent House of Delegates meetings complaining about why they could not do anything for members except win slam dunk grievances (primarily related to payroll, when principals tried to make people work for free). They had successfully attacked Lynch and her contract and ensured their re-election in 2007, but they did not appear to have much of a plan for the union beyond that.

By then, I thought I was done with the union. I was disappointed that neither the old guard UPC nor the supposed reformers in pact were able to clearly articulate the nature of corporate school reform and build resistance among the membership. I had planned to retire in 2008, but my transfer to King made teaching joyous again, so I decided to postpone the decision.

One of the best parts of working with pact was building relationships with people I respected. So when union member Debby Pope told me that another member, Jesse Sharkey, was starting a new caucus, I agreed to attend a meeting. As my husband and I trudged up three flights of stairs on an unseasonably warm evening in April 2008 for a meeting at the Casa Aztlan community center, I could see this caucus was going to be very different.

There were familiar faces around the table — Carol Caref, Norine Gutenkanst, Jesse Sharkey, Debby Pope, and George Schmidt — but also, impressively, young, fresh faces — Jackson Potter, Kenzo Shibata, Nate Goldbaum, Kyle Westbrook. Jesse chaired the first meeting, focusing on questions like, “How do we resist policies that harm our students?” “How do we fight the school closings?”

We were given an article by education policy professor Pauline Lipman which analyzed the “Mid-South Plan,” an urban renewal scheme hatched by the elite pro-business Civic Committee of the Commercial Club — the architects of “Renaissance 2010.” While they claimed the plan was to improve education, its true intention was a long-term real estate plan, a land grab by closing public schools and forcing poor and working-class people out of the city. All the signs were there, if we had simply paid attention. My husband and I joined the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) on the spot.

CORE continued to pay attention. Shared responsibility and deep discussions with parent, student, and community voices on how to push the CTU in a direction meant that we had to think about our union in a very different way. CORE members went to every school closing hearing, every charter school opening, and every Board of Education meeting, where we identified ourselves as members of CORE and made clear that we opposed the city’s education policies that destroyed neighborhoods and harmed our children.

In January 2009, we called for a citywide meeting on the future of public education in Chicago at Malcolm X College. By then, we had engaged CTU leadership, several community organizations, and the educators’ group Teachers for Social Justice, as well as teachers who had been displaced through school closings or turnarounds and teachers whose schools were targeted for closure.

That Saturday morning, a blizzard descended on Chicago. The union’s field representatives, members of the UPC sent to observe the proceedings and size CORE up, sat together and smugly looked at us upstarts, thinking the likelihood of people trudging through a Chicago winter morning to attend a meeting on education reform was next to nil. Yet slowly, union members and community members started trickling in; some schools sent busloads of people. The looks on the union staffers’ faces turned from self-satisfaction to awe. How had they so miscalculated?

The January 2009 Educational Summit was CORE’s coming out party. By then, CTU’s UPC leadership was in tatters; by May 2010, five caucuses vied for leadership. Only one talked about the need to include our natural allies in the struggle against educational apartheid and the takeover of Chicago’s public schools by the city’s ruling class; only one had been organizing alongside those allies for years; and only one had begun laying the groundwork for the strike that would come in September 2012.

That caucus was CORE.