Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who once served as defense attorney in a racial discrimination suit against investment firm Merrill Lynch, is now presented with the opportunity to address racism in the school district that she leads.
CHICAGO, March 22, 2021—A federal judge last week ruled that a Chicago Teachers Union class action lawsuit against Chicago Public Schools and its racially discriminatory turnaround policy will proceed to a jury trial. [Click here for live video of today’s press conference.]
For nine years, CPS has fought to prevent a civil rights trial in open court on whether its policy led to the termination of Black educators and support staff from their positions, even as Black educators become increasingly scarce in one of the nation’s most segregated school districts. On March 17, Judge Sara Ellis of the Northern District of Illinois ruled that the 2012 case will now go to a jury, and will set a trial date. If the parties agree, Judge Ellis will refer the case for settlement on April 8, 2021.
Union lawyers anticipate three weeks to present evidence and expert witness testimony on turnarounds’ impact on Black educators and school communities, followed by a separate proceeding to decide damages for the more than 300 teachers and paraprofessionals who were terminated in the 2012-2014 CPS turnaround actions.
The case has national implications for other school systems in which district policy is hurting a protected group of educators.
“Since you have engaged in a pattern and practice of systemic and systematic race discrimination, you must now engage in undoing that pattern and practice in a systemic and systematic way,” CPS President Jesse Sharkey said. “This has to be a new day and a new dawn of real equity in our school district.”
The CPS turnaround model purports to improve schools with low test scores and lower attendance rates through the wholesale firing of teachers and paraprofessionals, even though data shows that such layoffs disproportionately target educators, while failing to significantly improve student achievement. Turnarounds and targeted school closures were a favored mayoral strategy under a decade of vicious budget cuts and school reform that devastated Chicago public school communities in Black and Brown neighborhoods.
Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent the entirety of his two terms fighting Black educators impacted by this racist policy. During a deposition in 2016, CPS Chief Talent Officer Matt Lyons documented to Emanuel’s handpicked Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark, that for the years 2012-16, the district’s “budgetary layoffs” and school actions (including turnarounds) had a disproportionate effect on African-American teachers and paraprofessionals. Lyons had discussed with Clark and the Board’s chief of staff how Black students and residents in communities with population decline are disproportionately affected by “school actions and budgetary layoffs.”
Lyons testified that as a result of the discussion and data, the Board took no action, which resulted in no change in Board policy or practice. The same school action policies are in effect today.
“One of the more egregious things, from an attorney’s point of view, is that CPS had more than a decade to settle this case, yet fought it at every turn,” said attorney Randall Schmidt of the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago, one of the lead lawyers in the case.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, elected on a mandate of equity and inclusion, now has the power to fix more than a decade of racism entrenched in the district she inherited from Emanuel. No newcomer to class action race discrimination, Mayor Lightfoot defended investment firm Merrill Lynch in a $160 million racial discrimination suit filed by Black stockbrokers, and settled in a recent suit filed by families at Near South Side elementary school National Teachers Academy to stop CPS from closing the school. It was found at NTA that standardized tests used to justify turnarounds and school actions discriminated against African-American students.
“The mayor just gave a speech to the city where she talked about the threat of systemic racism and losses suffered by communities that really can’t afford any more losses,” President Sharkey said. “This is another chance for her to address those issues in our school communities.”
The suit is seeking monetary damages for the class of more than 300 terminated African-American teachers; a declaration that the CPS turnaround policies are racially discriminatory; the appointment of a monitor to evaluate, oversee and change or eliminate turnarounds to ensure there is no racial impact on Black schools, staff or communities; a permanent moratorium on turnarounds; and non-discriminatory and effective measures to improve school performance.
The Union has demanded for a decade that CPS end discriminatory “measures of effectiveness,” and instead, lower class sizes, expand early childhood programs, and fully staff and fund sustainable community schools with robust enrichment programs, counseling and trauma support. These are all proven strategies to support student achievement, well-being and growth.
Those strategies are even more important today as parents, grassroots groups and educators demand that Mayor Lightfoot invest upwards of $1.8 billion in additional federal COVID-19 support to schools for much-needed equity and recovery due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“CPS has spent more than 10 years and more than $5 million fighting Black educators who were trying to save their jobs from its racist policies,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said, “Make that make sense.”
The judge will set a trial date at the next hearing on April 8, 2021.