CTU charges race, sex discrimination in suit against reform law

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In putting new restrictions on the Chicago Teachers Union, lawmakers engaged in race and sex discrimination and political revenge, the CTU charges in a lawsuit seeking to have the restrictions declared unconstitutional.

“It appears when one looks at the legislation that its impact and its direction was to punish the Chicago Teachers Union and its members, understanding full well that that membership has a substantial number of minorities and women,” says Lawrence Poltrock, a lawyer for the CTU. About 65 percent of CTU members are from racial minority groups and 72 percent are female, according to the complaint filed June 27 in federal court.

The union also argues that the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed the legislation in retaliation for the CTU’s opposition to Gov. Jim Edgar in the last gubernatorial race.

The lawsuit is aimed at sections of the most recent Chicago school legislation that strip union members of job protection and due process, and that bar negotiation over many educational and employment issues, such as class size. The suit does not challenge the law’s 18-month ban on strikes.

“We have a contract,” explains Poltrock. “Why would we have to worry about striking?”

Lawyers for the defendants, which include the State of Illinois, Edgar, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board and the Chicago Board of Education, have asked a federal judge to dismiss the suit.

While the state and School Board expected a legal challenge from the union, they didn’t expect the discrimination charges, according to Patricia Whitten, outside counsel to the School Board. “We would have expected them to argue that [the law] interfered with their contract and that constitutionally you couldn’t take away those bargaining rights,” she says, “but their suit seems to focus on the aspect of race.”

The Illinois Supreme Court already has upheld legislation that stripped tenure from Chicago principals. In the 1991 case, the court indicated that what the Legislature gives, the Legislature can take away, notes Whitten.

Dan Polsby, a law professor at Northwestern University who has written about Chicago schools, calls the lawsuit a “desperation ploy” that is doomed to fail.

He notes there are dozens of statutes in Illinois and “probably tens of thousands nationwide” that apply only to municipalities of certain sizes—in this case, municipalities whose population is over 500,000, namely Chicago.

“This is just a very typical way of drafting state legislation to apply to a city,” Polsby says. “To make it into a lawsuit implies grasping at straws, I must say.”

The CTU faces the difficult task of proving that the General Assembly passed the legislation because of, not in spite of, its allegedly disparate impact on minorities and women, Polsby says.

Also, Chicago is not the only school system in Illinois with predominantly minority employees. Blacks constitute about 91 percent of the 938 administrators, teachers, principals and other staff in East St. Louis School District 129, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. Eighty-five percent of the employees in Hopkins Park schools are African American, as are 95 percent of the staff in Lovejoy schools, the data show.

Statewide, about 70 percent teachers are women, according to state data.

Lawmakers said they passed the far-reaching legislation because Chicago schools are in crisis. While the legislation lists no particulars, that’s not unusual in cases of state intervention, according to Kathy Christie, coordinator of the information clearinghouse at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Usually a variety of factors are considered, such as low student achievement scores and large gaps between minority and majority students, she says.

Meanwhile, the new School Board is expected to adopt, as policy, many of the job protections stricken from state law. And its new budget maintains previous class-size limits. The board made these promises during negotiations that produced a four-year CTU contract with raises of 3 percent to 3.375 percent each year. Even so, the CTU is not expected to drop its suit.

“Everybody’s treading lightly right now, but I expect them to pursue the case,” says Whitten.