DOWNTOWN — Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis says that a growing push to open charter schools in the city could eventually lead to publicly funded schools teaching controversial ideas, including creationism.
Lewis said Wednesday that when a charter proposal is denied by a local school district, only to be approved on appeal by the state commission, it gains funding from the local district, but with "absolutely no oversight." In effect, she said, it goes from being a charter school to an unregulated voucher school.
"They would not be responsible to anyone, and they could teach whatever they want," Lewis said. "They could teach creationism," the belief that God created all things out of nothing and that evolution is incorrect.
Jeanne Nowaczewski, executive director of the Illinois Charter School Commission, confirmed that a charter that wins on appeal does not face oversight from the local school district. "Whoever approves the school becomes the authorizer," she said, adding that such a charter would report instead to the commission while receiving its funding from the local district.
Yet she said the teaching of creationism was a bit of hyperbole on Lewis' part. "The commission utilizes an accountability system," Nowaczewski said, calling it "extremely rigorous." Creationism, she added, would not be part of an authorized curriculum.
Charter schools and other schools that receive government funding teach creationism in states outside of Illinois, a recent Slate review found.
In any case, Lewis said, "They're just gonna drain resources from the system," adding, "It's a huge problem, and every school board association across the state is complaining about it."
That includes CPS. When the Board of Education approved seven new charters last week, board President David Vitale expressed willingness to join with the union to lobby against the State Charter School Commission.
"I'm hoping the board wants to work with us," Lewis said, adding there are two bills in the General Assembly in Springfield to eliminate the state charter board.
It's just another front in an ongoing battle, she said, describing it as "a constant, constant attack."
The other major front, Lewis said, is so-called pension reform. The union is monitoring a court battle over statewide pension reform adopted by the General Assembly last year. While that law doesn't affect Chicago teachers, Lewis said the union is in a "coalition" with unions that filed suit Tuesday against the measures adopted last year.
"We are concerned about what that looks like, because we have been told we're next," Lewis said. "CTU is prepared to aggressively defend ourselves against this pension theft."
Lewis said it constitutes theft, not reform, in that union members have made their contributions to the pension fund, but the city has diverted its contributions to other spending for "political reasons" going back to 1995.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has blamed school closings and budget cuts on pension obligations, and is waiting for the General Assembly to approve similar pension reform for the city and its public pensions this year.
Lewis said the reform approved last year by the state legislature basically cuts benefits as a way of getting government agencies out of the funding hole they've dug for themselves.
"That's not a reform," Lewis said. "I'm a little sick of the word 'reform,' because whenever the word 'reform' comes out, the little guy is the one who gets hurt."
Lewis pointed out people on public pensions do not get Social Security. "So this is our retirement security," she said. "This is not a gift."
According to Lewis, the average Chicago Teachers Union pension is $40,000 a year, as little as $12,000 for support staff and older pensioners.
"We also see this as a very short-sighted fix," Lewis said. "We're willing to work on solving the problem, but we're not willing to just give away money because they can't figure out another way."
Lewis said the union will have a presence at Gov. Pat Quinn's budget address next month to fend off such reforms for city unions, perhaps in a united front with the Fraternal Order of Police and the Chicago firefighters' union.