True or False: Teachers are Part of the Solution, Not the Problem, in School ReformChicago Tribune Magazine
August 18, 2002
Not far from the city's "Union Row," where the headquarters of organized labor dominate Ashland Avenue, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union is standing outside Plumbers Hall and greeting hundreds of her members as they arrive for a monthly meeting. Like any good Irish politician born on the South Side, Deborah Lynch knows the names and stories of many of the teachers, school clerks and other union delegates who pass by her at the entrance of the union hall on West Washington Boulevard. "I like to do this every month because it's a good, informal way to hear what's on people's minds," says Lynch, who quickly switches her attention to an approaching elementary teacher. Lynch opens her arms and embraces the teacher in an effusive hug. With a hands-on style that includes regular visits to the city's farflung schools, this 50-year-old special-education teacher is trying to fulfill the campaign promises that helped her topple the leadership that had controlled the Chicago Teachers Union for 30 years. Lynch won 57 percent of her union's vote in May 2001 after she pledged to be a more visible, accessible and democratic union president than her predecessor, Thomas Reece. By all accounts, Reece was not prone to hugging union delegates when they showed up for meetings. To some of his members, he had become invisible. "It matters to people that Debbie is out there listening and visible. She has opened the union up," says Lake View High School teacher and union delegate Mable Rembert. "People who were afraid to speak are being heard." "Tom's style was to work behind the scenes," counters Reece supporter Theodore Dallas, a Wells High School teacher and union delegate who already is planning a run against Lynch in 2004. "Tom was not a good talker. He had a completely different way of doing things." Lynch's warmth and professional dress, a pale pink suit and thin-strapped sandals, seem an anomaly in a neighborhood identified with the burly men and sturdy women who once defined the city's workforce, but the near West Side is changing. Upscale loft and condominium developments continue to creep toward Union Park, altering the industrial flavor of the neighborhood. Lynch believes the Chicago Teachers Union, the third largest in the nation with 35,000 members, must change too. "There has been a false line between issues like raising student achievement and traditional union concerns like pay or seniority," Lynch says. "Both are union work."
Lynch is one of the new breed of teachers union leaders across the U.S. who believe they must participate in education reform to help raise student achievement or they will be the targets of reform. "Reform done with teachers will be more effective than reform done to teachers, which is what has been happening in Chicago," Lynch says. She has raised eyebrows among some in her union with a proposal to take responsibility for at least two struggling public schools during the coming school year. She wants to show that, with the right resources and training, teachers can engineer a turnaround in classroom performance. In January, under Lynch's leadership, Chicago teachers also will open the first union-sponsored graduate school in the nation, the Jacqueline B. Vaughn School for Teacher Leadership, where city teachers can earn master's degrees. "Debbie represents what the teachers union leader of the future will look like," says Adam Urbanski, longtime president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York and a founder in 1995 of the Teacher Union Reform Network, the movement that some have dubbed "the new teacher unionism." Lynch and the CTU recently joined TURN, whose members include 28 other union locals from the nation's two main teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
While Lynch already has attracted national attention for her innovative approach, Chicago teachers and other union members were slower to embrace her reform agenda. It took Lynch and her PACT caucus — Pro-Active Chicago Teachers and School Employees — more than five years and three tries to topple Reece and his slate.
Maintaining her base of support may depend less on the success of her school-reform efforts than on her ability to advance union members' bread-and-butter interests in better wages and working conditions. In the coming school year, the CTU and school board will begin talks on a new labor contract to replace the one that expires next June. It will be Lynch's fast contract negotiation and the first since Mayor Richard Daley appointed Chief Executive Arne Duncan and School Board President Michael Scott to run the city's 600 public schools. The challenge for Lynch is to be more assertive than Reece on pay raises and other issues without returning to the combative days of the 1970s and 1980s, when teachers went on strike nine times. The last walkout, in 1987, lasted 19 days, the longest in city history, and helped to mobilize the first wave of school reform in 1988.
"The contract is going to be the real test of Ms. Lynch's leadership ability," says Diane Myron, a school clerk at Curie High School who is on the CTU executive board. She is allied with the caucus that supported Reece, but she says the new leadership deserves a chance to show what it can do. "It is kind of scary when you look at it. We have new union leadership with little negotiating experience and then the school board has new leadership too."
Lynch's education credentials are impressive, but she has never overseen tough labor negotiations. She spent 14 years working on ways to improve teaching skills, first in a suburban Chicago special-education cooperative and then mostly for the union, both in the Chicago local and with the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C. She also has put in 11 years in the city's classrooms, in two stints positioned like bookends around her professional-development work. Now she must show that her team can broker a deal with school officials that her members can support
"Nobody's going to care if Debbie and her gang visited schools or that she stood outside the union meetings listening to their problems and handing out trinkets if she doesn't deliver a good contract," says Dallas, who chairs the United Progressive Caucus. The group, which supported Reece, claims more than 100 of the 600 union delegates who regularly vote in elections, though most delegates are not allied with either UPC or Lynch's PACT, which also claims more than 100 delegates.
Despite the continuing divisions in the union, Lynch has been able to unite members around an effort to regain bargaining rights for teachers and other school employees that were taken away in the 1995 school reform law that gave Daley control of the schools. After 1995, the teachers union, which had been painted as an obstacle to school reform, could no longer bargain on class size, the school calendar and a myriad of other issues that teachers in the Chicago suburbs and across the nation regularly negotiate.
Lynch made restoration of those rights a centerpiece of her administration's state legislative package, and, for the first time since 1995, city officials and the union are involved in quiet negotiations on legislation that could allow teachers to bargain again on some of the prohibited issues. According to sources, Lynch persuaded Daley to discuss the issue after union leaders succeeded, with Republican help, in getting a measure to restore the bargaining rights out of committee last spring. A number of people said it helped the union's case that the mayoral primary is coming up next March. "The mayor isn't going to want to have labor pissed off at him during an election year," says a Chicago school administrator.
"The mayor wants to get it done," says Chicago attorney Jim Franczek, the school board's outside labor negotiator who has been coordinating the low-profile meetings with the unions that represent school employees. "You've got the new leadership team of Duncan and Scott supporting it. The speaker [Rep. Michael Madigan] wants to get it done…We are trying to reach an agreement before the General Assembly comes back for the veto session" after the November election.
The ability of the city and the union to find common ground on bargaining rights will be seen as a bellwether for the tone of contract negotiations later this year, Franczek says. Lynch has been adamant that the union will not begin negotiations until the bargaining-rights issues are resolved.
People often underestimate Lynch. She usually is described as smart, focused and "perky," that word dreaded by professional women across America. Those who have seen Lynch at the microphone during a news conference or have watched her manage a classroom of rambunctious 8th graders agree that what stands out about Lynch is her aura of quiet resolve. "She is one of those people who have presence," says Paul O'Toole, acting principal at Marquette School, who was assistant principal when Lynch taught there. "Even though she is small in stature, I never saw Debbie raise her voice to keep order in her classroom…She creates an atmosphere of mutual respect, and the students respond." Eugenia Kemble, Lynch's boss at the AFT who now directs the Albert Shanker Institute, says, "Debbie is one of those people who keep their focus. She is able to rise above the quirks of others and remove obstacles to get done what needs to get done. She doesn't get into the petty stuff."
Lynch's determination doesn't surprise people who know something about her life and how she has dealt with sudden personal losses. She grew up in Chicago's Mt. Greenwood neighborhood and in suburban Oak Lawn as the eldest of eight children in a tight-knit Roman Catholic family. In 1982, a 26-year-old brother died in a car accident. Then, a decade later, her only sister, Barbara, was murdered by her husband, who was convicted of the crime. Lynch, who was divorced at the time, adopted her sister's three young children, two toddlers and a 5-year-old, and is raising them as her own. A few years later, her father died unexpectedly at age 74, collapsing on the 18th hole of a golf course.
"I think I take grief and try to channel it into energy for the next thing," Lynch says during a rare quiet moment in the CTU's vast office suite on the fourth floor of the Merchandise Mart. "When you have been through really devastating things in your life and you come through, it gives you the ability to put the other challenges you face in perspective. When things are tough, I envision my brother and sister there with me."
She and her family, started a charity — named BELA, her sister's initials — which contributes to groups in the Chicago area and Wisconsin that fight domestic abuse. "Domestic violence was the thing that happened to other families, not ours," Lynch says. "We didn't have a clue before we got the call that my sister was dead. Whatever happened, she kept it to herself. Now we want to do what we can so other families don't have to go through this."
When her sister died in April 1992, Lynch had been back home in Chicago for only two months after eight years in Washington working for the AFT in the educational issues department. An earlier marriage to John Walsh, an Irishman she met while she was studying one summer at Trinity College in Dublin, had ended. She had returned to her hometown to start up the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, a leadership and school-reform academy for city teachers, with an old friend and mentor, John Kotsakis, who was an assistant to Jacqueline Vaughn, then the CTU president. With the death of her sister, Lynch suddenly found herself juggling a career and an instant family.
She moved to Orland Park to be closer to her parents and siblings, who helped care for her sister's children while she continued her work. "I went from being a divorcee living in a condo in Lake View to a soccer mom in the suburbs overnight," she says.
In 1994, both Kotsakis, her close colleague, and CTU leader Vaughn died, and Lynch left the Quest Center the following year to return to teaching at Marquette on the Southwest Side.
She also was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the union. "I did not believe the leadership of the union under Reece was advocating enough for its members in an administrative culture that blamed teachers for problems in the Chicago schools," Lynch says.
She began planning her first unsuccessful run against Reece, who had taken the CTU helm after Vaughn's death. What she didn't plan on was falling in love. One day, Marquette's operating engineer, Bill Byrne, appeared in the storage closet Lynch was assigned as a learning-disabilities classroom because of overcrowding at the school. "I think you were going to hang a bulletin board for me or something, weren't you?" Lynch asks Byrne of the encounter. Byrne laughs at the recollection, telling a listener: "Yes, she got to see me from behind. It must have been the buns of steel that got her." Their love story even has a union label: Byrne is the vice president of Operating Engineers Local 143.
Byrne, who was a widower with a 12-year-old daughter, and Lynch went on their first date to see the movie "The American President." "Debbie was worried when she realized the story was about a man who had just lost his wife; she worried that it might upset me because my wife had only been dead about a year," Byrne says. "That's the kind of person she is, very kind and thoughtful." Seven years later, Lynch and Byrne are married and Lynch has a decade of motherhood behind her. On a June morning at the breakfast table in their bustling Orland Park home, the blended Lynch-Byrne family resembles a scene out of one of those classic television sitcoms about all-American families, the kind where the kids drink a lot of milk while engaging in witty banter.
The family dog, Sunny, pushes his nose through the front door as Lynch opens it at 7 a.m. She looks fresh and ready to roll. She has an 8:15 a.m. meeting at Fulton Elementary School on Chicago's South Side, but until she leaves the house, the kids and her husband are the only thing on her radar. She is closing up the Cheerios box while she checks on 12-year-old Michael's plans to go swimming at the municipal pool later that day with his friend Liam and his mother. "Kate, you'll watch Michael when he walks over to Liam's, right?" Lynch asks her 13-year-old daughter.
Kate, finishing her breakfast yogurt, tells a visitor that having two parents in the labor movement can make for some boring dinner-table conversation about union issues. "They talk about it too much," she says, then worries that she may have hurt her mother's feelings. Lynch laughs and says, "You can say what you think."
Though a public-school advocate, Lynch sends her youngest children, Kate and Michael, to Catholic elementary school. Her eldest daughter, Jessica, 15, is at Sandburg, Orland Park's public high school. Lynch's stepdaughter, Elizabeth, 19, is at college.
"My sister wanted her children to go to Catholic school and I am honoring her wishes while they are in elementary school, but then it's a public high school," says Lynch, who also was educated in Chicago-area Catholic schools, graduating from Mother McAuley High. Her higher education is from public institutions: an elementary and special-education degree from Western Illinois University, a master's degree in special education from Chicago State University, and a PhD in educational policy analysis from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The clock is edging toward 7:40 a.m., time to get Kate and Michael to school for their last day of classes before summer. They pile into the family van and exchange quick commuter kisses and hugs outside their school. As the van pulls away, Lynch begins her transformation from suburban mom to president of the third-largest teachers union in the nation. "I try to draw some boundaries and make sure that I'm focused on the children when I'm with them, and focused on work when I'm there." She heads north toward the Englewood neighborhood and Fulton School, which she hopes will help launch her "new unionism" effort to involve teachers more deeply in school reform.
The effort had hit a wall two months earlier, when schools chief Duncan announced that three Chicago elementary schools would close at the end of the school year because of chronic academic failure, forcing teachers and other staff at the school to find new jobs. Lynch says she found out about the closings only a half-hour before Duncan's surprise press conference. She and others considered it a blow to the trust that was developing between the two leaders. Some even interpreted the snub to Lynch as a message from City Hall. "You could take it that it was the mayor sending a message that he'd talk on [bargaining rights], but remember who's in charge here," one school official said.
AFT President Sandra Feldman condemned the incident as an example of "old-fashioned, top-down management styles" that thwart collaborative efforts by teachers unions. "Arne Duncan set back labor-management relations in Chicago when he decided to close those schools without giving more voice to the union and the people working in those schools."
Asked to respond, Duncan said he has "tremendous respect for Debbie" but added, "We have different jobs and sometimes we will disagree."
Lynch countered with a proposal to the mayor and Duncan that the union take over the three schools to show that teachers could improve student achievement under the right conditions. Duncan and School Board President Scott refused the offer, but said the union could tackle two other struggling schools. "Just because we disagreed on the closings doesn't mean I don't want to collaborate. I am looking forward to it and think it will be fun in a number of other areas," Duncan said.
Lynch thought Fulton School would be a good candidate for the project. In January, Fulton union delegate Marcia Williams, a reading lab teacher, had approached Lynch about helping teachers at the school improve their students' reading test scores. "We had been on probation for a number of years," Williams says. "I felt like we were coming to the end of the line and needed to try something new and drastic."
While teaching at Marquette School, Lynch had had success with a reading program developed at Johns Hopkins University, called Success for All, and held a series of meetings with Williams and other teachers about that program and other ideas for improving performance. The plan seemed to be progressing well, but one obstacle remained: Success for All requires that 80 percent of the teachers at a school vote in favor of it before it can be implemented.
On this particular morning, June 7, Lynch drove to a meeting with Fulton principal Michael Winston, Williams and other teachers to discuss scheduling a vote so the union could finish negotiating a contract with the school board on the reorganization. All seemed cordial Winston said, "If the teachers want it, I'm in favor of this." They agreed to schedule a teacher-information session on June 21 where Lynch, Duncan, and a Success for All representative could answer questions. The vote was set for the morning of the last day of school, June 25.
Behind the scenes, things were not going so well. Williams says that as soon as Winston realized that under the proposed contract the union and the school board would have joint power to appoint the principal, he began to send mixed signals to the staff about whether he supported the union's plan. Lynch says Winston also reacted negatively when he found out he would not choose the teacher to coordinate the reading program, that instead the teachers would elect someone from their ranks. "For this to work, you have to have leaders who are courageous enough to empower teachers," Lynch said "No one went into this with the intent to displace anyone."
In the end, Fulton teachers voted 30-19 against Success for All, with 18 abstaining. "I would say that the principal was threatened by shared decision-making," Lynch says. "The information presented to me suggests that the teachers were intimidated by the mixed messages they received."
Winston, who just completed his first year as Fulton principal, disputes the version of events presented by Williams, Lynch and other teachers. "When the information got out that the union could replace the principal, some of the teachers got upset on their own. I had nothing to do with it," he says. "They felt they had not had all the information provided to them by the union in the preliminary meetings."
While the Fulton project was unraveling, teachers at Libby, another South Side school, said they wanted to work with the union as a Success for All school. Teachers in Libby's main building voted unanimously to become one of the union's schools, though another building opted not to participate. "I like that Debbie is proactive," says Libby teacher and union delegate Bonnie Anderson. "She puts her money where her mouth is. You have to admire that."
Lynch's critics point to Fulton as a failure for the union president, but Lynch refuses to accept that label. "Circumstances just worked out to show that the proposal would not have worked there because of its leadership issues," she says.
As long as school systems remain entrenched in top-down management models, Lynch says, organized labor is the only way to give teachers a voice. It is a view forged from her experiences as a young special-education teacher in two Chicago schools almost 30 years ago. At her first school, Barnard, her 16 handicapped students raised $750 for field trips by selling jewelry they had made in class under Lynch's guidance. When the children and Lynch were moved to another school, the principal refused to release the money so it could benefit the children who earned it. At her next Chicago school, Whistler, the principal evaluated her without ever visiting her classroom or watching her teach. Although she received a rating of "excellent," it was still one step below the highest rating of "superior" that she had earned in previous evaluations, which were also done without observing her.
"When you are young and idealistic, it is shocking to run up against that brick wall of the Chicago school bureaucracy," says Lynch. "I saw the powerlessness of teachers."
Still, as the Fulton episode shows, not all Chicago teachers want to go where Lynch is leading. Her members praised Lynch for taking a strong and visible stand against the school closings, but not everyone wants to see teachers and the union go the next level and assume responsibility for turning around struggling schools.
"It is not the union's job to re-engineer the schools. That's management work. It's the work of principals and the administration," says Dallas. "Debbie would be great working for some foundation or at a university or for the school board. I just don't think she should be union president." He also questions the amount of union dues being spent on education efforts. He is especially critical of the increase from $650,000 to $950,000 for the Quest Center's budget, which Lynch said is necessary to provide more training at more locations for teachers and paraprofessionals.
James Dougherty, statewide president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, says he understands that some teachers do not want the union to get into the school-reform business, but he sees no other choice. "You are telling people that they have to take on more work than they already have so, of course, they will be reluctant about that," he says. "But we can't leave it to management, because they haven't done it. They've dropped the ball. I think Debbie is the ideal leader for CTU at this time."
The bitter feelings that linger between the Lynch and Reece camps stem from more than mere philosophical differences about the direction of the union. Dougherty assumed the IFT presidency after Reece, who had already lost the CTU presidency to Lynch, resigned in September 2001 as IFT president amid allegations of improprieties by Lynch. Shortly after Lynch took office in July last year, she wrote a letter to all CTU members questioning the $1.4 million Reece and his officers received in severance benefits at the time of their departure and asked for an investigation by the national AFT. That investigation resulted in Reece and other departing officers paying back $239,000 to the CTU treasury, but no findings of wrongdoing were issued and all sides signed a confidentiality agreement about the matter, according to sources.
Reece, who has retired, did not respond to requests for an interview, but his supporters said the outgoing union leaders had contracts that allowed the payouts so they were legal. "My understanding is that everything they took was allowed in their good contracts," says Dallas. "Tom Reece earned every penny he made. He ate and slept the union for years."
Despite that dedication, many of his members had come to believe that Reece was too close to former CEO Paul Vallas at the same time he had grown distant from teachers in the trenches.
"There was a condescension from the Reece people. You'd have to kiss their feet. Your lips would get chapped, but you still might not get what you needed," Lake View High School union delegate Rembert said.
In the end, Lynch said she knows her members will decide if she is worth her $107,000-a-year salary not on her inclusive style or ambitious view of the union's educational role, but on the quality of the contract she brings home next year. Teacher dissatisfaction with the last contract, a 3 percent salary increase followed by two years of 2 percent raises, helped fuel Lynch's upset victory.
"We'll have to bring back something better than the raises in the last contract," Lynch said. The laserlike determination her supporters talk about seeps into her voice. "The contract is the central work of the union. I know we have to deliver."