By Ben Joravsky

By day Debbie Lynch Walsh teaches special education to a few dozen students in a cramped classroom in a public school on the southwest side.

Come evening she’s in her car, driving from school to school throughout the city on a long-shot campaign–some might say a hopeless quest–to unseat Tom Reece as president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Reece dismisses the challenge as insignificant, saying the rank and file wouldn’t dare put the union in the hands of a person he calls a neophyte. “She’s never even filed a grievance–her lack of depth is amazing,” says Reece. “I don’t even know why she’s running. We’re on the way to really improving things.”

But whether she wins or loses the May 18 election, Walsh is raising important questions about the union’s relationship to civic, school, and political leaders. She’s proposing that the union shed its insular habits by becoming more of a public player, an advocate even, in the debate over curriculum and school structure. “We have to stop being so defensive, and we have to get involved,” says Walsh. “For too long the union’s allowed teachers to go without a voice. Someone has to make the stand that the public employees are the solution, not the problem. There are changes going on, and we have got to get involved.”

The contrasts between Reece and Walsh go well beyond rhetoric. A former high school science teacher, Reece worked his way up the union ranks by cultivating close relationships with his presidential predecessors, Jacqui Vaughn and Robert Healey. “I’ve spent 36 years in this union,” he says. “It’s been my life.”

In 1987 he became vice president; when Vaughn died in 1994, he replaced her as president. Two years ago he handily defeated union activist George Schmidt by emphasizing his close ties with Vaughn, who is still widely admired by many teachers. “I’ve known Jacqui for years–we stood in line at teachers college together way back in ’61,” he says. “Jacqui and I were on the same wavelength. When you vote for me, you know you’re voting for someone who can carry on Jacqui’s legacy.”

Walsh, on the other hand, has never even been a union delegate. In the early 1970s she began her career as a grade school teacher. After earning her PhD she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a policy analyst for the American Federation of Teachers. In 1989 she returned to Chicago to help set up the Quest Center, the CTU’s think tank.

This was in the early days of school reform. An unusual coalition of business leaders, suburban Republicans, parent activists, education professors, and other self-appointed reformers had just joined forces to pass a law putting each school under the control of a locally elected council of five parents, two teachers, two community representatives, and the principal.

The union had no major role in drafting that law. Indeed, many reformers were hostile to teachers, blaming them for the system’s ills. When it comes to disputes between teachers and the board, reformers tend to stay silent. That was the case a few years ago, when the board suddenly rearranged high school class schedules in an attempt to trim teachers from the payroll. More recently, there was hardly a peep of protest about academic freedom after board CEO Paul Vallas ordered a south-side English teacher to remove the coming-of-age novel Coffee Will Make You Black from her required reading list. Even reform-minded education professors, who wouldn’t tolerate a dean telling them what to teach, kept quiet.

“For too long the message to teachers has been that you’re on your own if you try to do something innovative,” says Walsh. “That’s got to change.”

One of the purposes of the Quest Center is to build bridges with reformers and devise new curricula. Working with John Kotsakis, who founded the center, Walsh helped set up a master’s degree program for teachers and encouraged them to move away from regimented routines of worksheets and textbooks.

While Vaughn and Reece stayed clear of most reform gatherings, Walsh jumped right in. “She was the union’s bridge to the reform community,” says one education professor and activist. “She even spoke like a reformer. She knew all the buzzwords. You didn’t see many union people at these meetings; I don’t think they felt welcome.”

In August Walsh left the Quest Center and returned to the classroom. A few weeks later she announced she had put together a slate and was running against Reece. Walsh says she had no choice. “After Jacqui died I kept waiting for her replacements to come forward and show some leadership, but there was a deafening silence,” Walsh says. “The final straw was last spring’s legislative session.”

In that session Republican legislators rewrote state law, giving Mayor Daley control of the school board and abolishing important guarantees the union had struck to gain. Under the new law, for instance, class size is no longer limited by union contract and teachers can be suspended for one week without a hearing.

The argument is that union contracts only block much-needed change. If principals want to improve low-scoring schools, they should be able to hire or fire teachers at will, a prerogative once denied by union seniority rules.

That attitude, Walsh counters, suggests that teachers shouldn’t have any say in how a school is governed. “It’s not just a matter of protecting due process and teachers’ rights,” says Walsh. “It’s also a matter of good educational policy. Under the new law if Vallas wants to raise class size to 50, he can do so, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But that’s horrible from an educational standpoint. All the studies show that students benefit from smaller class size. That’s what the latest trends in school reform are all about: small schools and small classes. But in that one instance we gave it all away.

“When I was following that legislative session I kept wondering, where was the union? Where was the voice of the teacher to let the public know how important these things are? Why are we so timid? Why do we sit back and let things happen to us? Why aren’t we more proactive? I left my job [with Quest] in order to get back to the classroom and launch this campaign.”

Reece says the union did all it could in the face of hostile Republican legislators. “That legislation was a trap devised by anti-Chicago legislators who wanted to force us to go out on a strike,” says Reece, who believes a walkout would have turned public sentiment against the union and won support for wholesale changes in the way the schools are financed and operated. “If we had gone on strike, they could have taken it to us and made us the enemy, and we would have lost everything. So we tried to be smart about it.”

Instead of striking, the union moved to forge a quick agreement on a contract with the new school board. “We got a four-year deal which means stability, and we got pay increases in every year,” says Reece. “The new law does say we can’t negotiate class size. But the board agreed that raising class size is grievable. So we don’t lose anything.”

And what about the fact that principals now have the right to suspend teachers without a hearing?

“We’ve been monitoring it since it went in, and there don’t seem to be any abuses,” says Reece.

Reece says his strong working relationship with Vallas works well for teachers. “One difference between this board and others is that they listen to us,” he says. “Vallas isn’t so insecure that he has to defend every decision. I can call him up and say, ‘Paul, this doesn’t make sense.’ He’s constantly looking for ways to improve things.”

But Walsh says the union shouldn’t have to depend on the kindness of board administrators. “They shouldn’t just make a phone call to Vallas and hope he does the right thing. They should be talking to reporters and meeting with community groups and getting the word out when teachers are doing good things and getting the word out when proposed changes would hurt the classroom. There’s a major philosophical difference between me and [Reece]. He says running the school is management’s job. I say if we’re not part of the solution we’re lost.”

One of her proposals, guaranteed to draw opposition from reformers, is to increase from two to five the number of teacher representatives on local school councils. “I say to the reformers, If you want democracy, make it a real democracy–give the teachers an equal voice.”

In the last few weeks the campaign has heated up, as Reece has sent letters likening Walsh to that “well-known master of negativism and deceit, Pat Buchanan,” for “attempting to distort all the good news about our union into things sinister.” Another campaign letter accuses Walsh of stating on public television that “providing Chicago schools with more money is throwing money down a sewer.”

Walsh says she never said anything even vaguely like that. “I can show you the transcript; I said we’re not going to convince the legislators or the public to give us new money unless we show them we’re turning the schools around. That’s a lot different from saying the schools don’t deserve more money. They must be getting desperate, or they wouldn’t be making up lies about me.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.