A More Perfect Union

By Ben Joravsky — August 01, 2002 29 min read
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Deborah Lynch wants more than just decent wages for Chicago’s teachers. She wants them to be in charge.

It’s not even 8 a.m., and already Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, is well into her day. “I’m meeting with the teachers this morning,” she says, pulling her minivan into the parking lot of a small elementary school on the city’s West Side. “After this, I have a meeting with other union leaders. So it’s going to be a busy day.” On this particular morning in early June, she happens to be visiting Laura Ward Elementary, a mostly African American school. Lynch makes drop-ins of this kind two to three times a week. “These visits are key,” she explains. “I want to meet the members. I want to keep them abreast of what we’re doing. I want to hear what’s on their minds.”

In the main hallway, just beyond the metal detector, sits a security guard. “Can I help you, ma’am?” he asks.

“Yes, I’m Debbie Lynch—president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union.”

His eyebrows rise. “Are they expecting you?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Are you alone?”


“Where’s your driver?”

“I don’t have one.”

He looks astonished. Chicago’s a place where any hack with connections has a driver. And yet, here’s a woman who leads a union of 35,000— one of the city’s biggest—navigating the streets on her own.

“An important woman like you should have a driver,” the guard suggests. “I’ll be your driver and your bodyguard.”

Lynch smiles and explains that during last year’s election campaign, she criticized her opponent, incumbent Tom Reece, for wasting union dues on such luxuries. The guard stares blankly. “But thank you anyway for your kind offer,” she concludes.

Down the hall, in the administrative office, the school’s principal is conferring with a counselor. Lynch reaches out her hand and introduces herself. The principal’s eyes widen. “Why, of course,” she says. “But I didn’t know you were coming.”

“I made arrangements with your union delegate.”

A few seconds pass before it becomes apparent that a battle of wills is taking place. Evidently the delegate forgot to tell the principal about Lynch’s visit. So the administrator has every right to stand on ceremony and ask Lynch to return another day, after she’s been given proper notice. Or she could allow Lynch to conduct a 20- minute, before-school meeting with the staff. Certainly Lynch isn’t making things easy. She’s short and rail-thin, not much of a physical presence. But at the moment, she’s standing ramrod straight, a bag slung over her shoulder, a pleasant smile frozen on her face.

As president of the CTU, Lynch is considered a leader by some, a font of “pointy-headed gobbledygook” by others.
—Gordon Downey

The principal sighs and leads Lynch to the school library, a large, brightly lit room with plenty of tables and chairs. She then disappears, and soon her voice is heard over the loudspeaker. “Deborah Lynch, president of the teachers’ union, is in the library,” she announces.

In file the teachers: men and women, black and white, staring in wonderment at Lynch. “We’ve never had a union president at Ward before,” one says.

“I hope this won’t be the last time,” Lynch responds.

As the 50 or so educators settle in, Lynch walks to the center of the room and starts to speak. “I don’t want to take too much of your time,” she says. “I know you’re awfully busy. I want to, first of all, thank you for inviting me to your school. It’s an honor to behere.”

Then she launches into a speech she’s made, in one form or another, many times before: I appreciate your situation. Conditions can be unbearable. You don’t get enough respect. That’s why I’m pushing for legislation that would recover the many bargaining rights CTU members lost six years ago. The administration at the school board’s central office is not always friendly. When the school CEO recently announced plans to close three of the city’s schools—thus terminating 80 teaching positions—he gave me no notice.

Her husband, she adds, is an operating engineer at Marquette Elementary, where only a year ago she was teaching. So she can relate to the rank and file. “Under [former school CEO] Paul Vallas, we were the fall guys,” she adds. “We were the ones who took the blame. Well, we utterly reject that message. We have erosion of pay. We are not treated as professionals. And they wonder why we have 1,100 vacancies. They bad-mouth the schools. They bad- mouth the teachers. But I know better. You know better. We are the solution. We are not the problem.”

This is vintage Lynch. She’s no grandstanding orator, yet she forcefully hits her points. And though she speaks extemporaneously—no notes, no script—she’s always focused. As one supporter suggests, her strength “is her control. She’s very disciplined, like a curveball pitcher working the outside corner.”

Wrapping up, Lynch talks about the biggest challenge that awaits Chicago’s teachers. Their contract expires in a year, and come September, she’ll begin negotiations for a new one. Lynch looks at the clock; 15 minutes have passed. Soon the bell will ring. There’s time for some Q- and-A.

Hands go up, and the questions pour in—about the rising costs of medical insurance, standardized tests, the poor quality of substitute teachers. Lynch offers sympathy and promises action. Then she calls on a woman up front.


“It says we need our bargaining rights back,” Lynch answers.

The bell rings, and children flood the building. But the complaints continue: overcrowding, lack of supplies, not enough prep periods, no respect. Over the loudspeaker, the school clerk reminds teachers that it’s time to get to their classrooms. Soon, the principal arrives. “Thank you, Ms. Lynch,” she says, and the teachers exit the room.

As chaotic as this morning is, it’s typical for Lynch, who began the 2001-02 school year knowing she had a lot of ground to cover in very little time. Her mission as head of the CTU is unprecedented: She wants to change the culture of education in Chicago by overturning a hierarchy in which teachers are lodged somewhere near the bottom. She wants to win her members new rights, higher wages, and greater responsibilities. “I want teachers to be treated as professionals, not as workers,” is how she puts it. “If they’re going to hold us accountable, well, put us in charge.”

Such talk, in this city (and many others, no doubt), is revolutionary. And the odds against Lynch—who’s finishing up the first year of a three-year term—are staggering. But then, few predicted she would have gotten this far. In May 2001, she stunned Chicago’s political establishment by defeating Reece, the union’s long-entrenched incumbent, in her third try at doing so. Her victory, almost 10 years in the making, was an act of iron will in which she stubbornly inched ahead, systematically pursuing her goal. “Debbie’s tough—I mean, really tough,” says Sandra Finkel, a teacher who’s one of Lynch’s strongest supporters. “She’s a role model for union leaders around the country. If anyone can remake the role and image of teachers, she can.”

Perhaps. But Lynch has taken some political hits. The one that still smarts is the Chicago Board of Education’s decision to close three low-performing elementary schools. She pleaded to keep them open, but to no avail. This September, she’ll have to negotiate with that same board—for what could be a costly contract in financially unstable times.

But today, at least, Lynch shows no sign of budging. As she leaves Ward, a light rain falls. The parking lot fence is chained shut. So she stands in the rain until the guard comes out, key in hand.

“If you had me as your driver,” he says, unlocking the gate, “I’d have been waiting for you outside the school with the engine running. You’d have hopped into the car, and you’d already be on your way.”

Lynch smiles and says nothing, a rock in the rain. The guard opens the gate. The diminutive union president then slides into her van and drives off, alone and behind the wheel—just the way she wants it.

The first few months of Lynch’s presidency were a good indication of exactly what she was up against. Despite winning 57 percent of the vote against Reece, she’d ticked off many CTU stalwarts, mostly by suggesting they’d done too little for their members in the past. There was also a new school CEO, Arne Duncan, who warned of falling tax revenues and possible budget cuts. Lynch, however, had to be careful in dealing with Duncan and the man who’d appointed him, Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard Daley. She needed to earn their respect if she was going to make good on her biggest campaign promises: to win teachers a decent raise and regain the bargaining rights. Then again, she couldn’t afford to get too chummy.

“She can’t make the same mistake as Reece,” recalls one union insider. “She can’t look like a sycophant, like she’s dependent on Daley and Duncan.”

Still, she had to deal with Reece’s people. Most of the CTU’s central-office staffers were holdovers from her predecessor’s regime, including the union’s 15 field reps. In her first few weeks, Lynch silently crept around union headquarters and spoke softly, as if the place were bugged.

Such concerns were not baseless. Her campaign against 60-year-old Reece, who has since retired, had been hard-fought, leaving the old guard feeling maligned and in no mood for reconciliation. Reece’s allies immediately began to meet at local restaurants to plot their comeback. As they saw it, the rank and file wanted to be led and protected—they didn’t want to hear what one anti-Lynch teacher calls “a bunch of pointy-headed gobbledygook.”

“Look, don’t get me wrong: Debbie’s a bright woman,” says Ted Dallas, a horticulture teacher at Wells High School and a longtime ally of Reece’s. “But she should be working for a university, not running a union. She’s in way over her head. Our caucus built this union. Our caucus understands this union. We ran it for years. She has no concept of how to get the members what they want—good working conditions and wages.”

Dallas is Lynch’s most vocal union opponent. Just before each monthly delegates’ meeting, he takes his place outside the entrance—not far from Lynch—and distributes fliers making vague accusations of incompetence against her. On the floor, he’s a relentless critic, rising to question her tactics and challenge her stances.

Lynch trades pleasantries with John Frantz, a representative of the school CEO’s office.
—Gordon Downey

Lynch’s backers dismiss Reece’s allies as baseless provocateurs. “They’re sore losers,” says Finkel. “They can’t rule, so they ruin—or try to, anyway.” But even some in the Lynch camp concede that she’s made life difficult for herself. Lobbying for bargaining rights, for example, may not be the wisest move right now.

“Daley had made it clear: He did not want to restore those bargaining rights,” says one Lynch adviser. “Without Daley’s support, I don’t think we can get a bill passed. So why make a fight you can’t win—especially in that first year in office?”

For a while, Lynch avoided direct confrontations with Daley or Duncan. In March, in fact, Duncan joined her at a press conference to announce the formation of a union-led graduate school of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Afterward Duncan was effusive in his praise of Lynch and her efforts.

At that point, the two education leaders were meeting once a month to update each other. In February, Lynch recalls, Duncan promised not to make any major announcement on matters affecting teachers without first telling her. “I think we have a good working relationship,” she reported in March.

Then, on April 10, her press office got a release from the school board, stating that a major announcement was imminent. One hour later, Duncan went before TV cameras to say that with the school board’s permission, he would be closing three underachieving elementary schools and firing about 80 teachers at the end of the school year.

From Ward Elementary, Lynch heads east on Washington Boulevard, driving to her meeting downtown with leaders from the janitors’ and engineers’ unions, who will also be negotiating contracts in the coming year. She turns on the radio, then turns down the sound. She passes vacant lots, abandoned buildings, ragtag clumps of men hanging on the corner.

“Look, over there—that’s Dodge School, one of the three schools Duncan’s closing,” she says suddenly. Dodge is a low-lying building squeezed against a viaduct. “It’s a shame what they did to the teachers, students, and parents. No notice. No justification. Just close them down. Do you know they have a 50 percent transient rate? You know what that means? That means many of its children are homeless. More social services might have helped. But what do they do? They close it down and call that reform. That’s not reform. That’s scapegoating. They might have at least examined the school’s problems instead of just closing it.”

As she drives farther east, vacant lots give way to new construction, coffee shops, upscale restaurants, and other signs of gentrification—possibly the real reason, Lynch suggests, for closing the schools. Soon she’s in the Loop, Chicago’s central business district. Lynch swings her van north along Michigan Avenue, then enters a multilevel parking garage.

“There’s usually a few spaces at this time of day,” she says.

But none is to be found. Around and around she circles, gradually climbing up the lot. Her meeting begins in a few minutes.

“I don’t like to be late,” she says. “I don’t like to keep people waiting.”

She stops talking and turns off the radio. As she prepares to follow the ramp up to the next level, her passenger spies an open space behind her van and to the right.

“The only problem is that you’ll have to go the wrong way down a one-way lane,” he tells her.

She slows her car and looks around. There is no motorist in sight. She makes the turn and slips into the space. She eyes her watch. There’s still a minute or two to get to her meeting.

“Don’t tell anyone,” she says with an embarrassed grin.

Decorum is not something by which this CTU president feels bound. Although once politically naive, Lynch had learned a few tricks by the time she got around to campaigning against Reece for the second time. In 1997, for example, she wrote and disseminated an open letter to then school CEO Paul Vallas that was as much an indictment of Reece as of the school board. It began with her account of a recent professional-development day, during which 120 teachers were forced to sit on “hard, wooden, nailed-down seats for a mandatory six-hour workshop on team building,” while a well-paid consultant chided them for talking out of turn. “The day reminded me of an article I read about 20 years ago, comparing teacher professional development to the insemination of Flossie the Cow,” she continued. “Like Flossie, [the teachers] endured but didn’t enjoy it very much. It just happened.”

Before CTU meetings, Lynch greets every delegate at the door.
—Gordon Downey

Vallas ignored the letter, but it was a hit with teachers, who posted it in schools across the city. In the 1998 elections, Lynch pulled closer to Reece than she had the first time around, winning 43 percent of the vote. And still she kept campaigning. “I never stopped, really,” she says. “I knew that it was a long haul.”

Moreover, it seemed as if she was gaining ground as rank-and-file dissatisfaction mounted over Vallas’ policy of firing teachers at high schools scoring low on standardized tests. Behind the scenes, Reece pleaded with Vallas to give teachers something, anything, warning him of rising dissent. Vallas responded, in 1998, with a contract raise of 3.2 percent. But the deal was met with scorn.

“The system was relatively flush back then. Don’t forget, this was the ‘90s, and the city had more money than ever,” says Jay Rehak, a former high school English teacher who now works for the union. “And yet this was all we got?”

The contract was put to a ratification vote. After tallying the votes, Reece announced that the contract had been ratified by a sizable majority. But many teachers didn’t believe him. “Everyone kept asking everyone else, ‘I didn’t vote for it; did you?’ It seemed like you couldn’t find anyone who voted for it,” recalls Rehak.

Joined by longtime union activist George Schmidt, Lynch took the union leaders to court, demanding a school-by-school accounting of the vote. She lost, but the case threw Reece on the defensive. “Here he was spending union money to fight an effort to open up the process for everyone to see,” says Rehak. “It made people wonder, What is he trying to hide?”

The politically astute rebel Deborah Lynch is today did not show herself right away. Born to a middle-class family of 10 in the predominantly white Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, Lynch says she didn’t get into trouble. “I worked hard in school, but I was never politically involved,” she recalls. “I was a straight arrow—the first in my family to go to college. My parents were probably Democrats, though I can’t say for sure. We didn’t talk about politics.”

Lynch did, however, take an early interest in education. “When I was 13,” she recalls, “my mother said, ‘Get out of the house, and do something,’ so I volunteered at a school for handicapped children near my home. I fell in love with the children. As corny as it sounds, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be a special ed teacher.”

Nine years later and fresh out of Western Illinois University, she became just that, at a public school on the South Side of Chicago. And although she adored her students, she quickly took note of the repressive education hierarchy and its unwritten rules. “The lessons you learn are to be quiet, don’t ask questions; only troublemakers ask questions,” she says. “I saw how teachers were beaten down.”

By 1979, after five years in the classroom, Lynch had had enough. She wanted to stay in education but attack the problem from a different angle. So she took a job as a professional-development specialist in a federally funded program and went to graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, earning a master’s degree and then a doctorate in education (her dissertation topic: “Power and Powerlessness in Teaching”). She also crossed paths with John Kostakis, a field rep for the CTU, who, she says, “talked about how a union could be more than just reacting to negative things. He got me to think about the toll of working in a huge, impersonal system in which curriculum is dictated from the top, where you are a robot who follows orders.”

In 1983, she went to work for the American Federation of Teachers, of which the CTU is an affiliate. For eight years, she lived in Washington, D.C., but raced across the country, leading workshops and seminars in progressive teaching techniques. Back then, she says, her career was her life. A marriage in the ‘70s had ended in a divorce for her, so she had no husband or children. “Working for the union became almost like a religion to me,” Lynch recalls. “We had a mission, a common belief system. We felt that we were part of an extremely important, life- and-death effort to expand the union and save the public schools.”

‘If they’re going to hold us accountable, well, put us in charge.’

Deborah Lynch,
Chicago Teachers Union

In 1992, she returned to Chicago, at Kostakis’ request, to help set up the Quest Center, a newly formed teacher-training facility run by the CTU. “I had so much optimism,” she says. “I wanted to do in Chicago what the national union had been doing all over the country.”

But those early years were marred by tragedy and disappointment. Not long after Lynch had moved back to Chicago, her sister, Barb, was killed in a domestic dispute, which left their three young children (two girls and a boy) motherless. With the support of her extended family, Lynch won legal custody of the kids—who, at the time, were 1, 3, and 5 years old—but she resolutely refuses to discuss the incident. “I realize I’m a public person,” she says, “but my family is off-limits.”

As she struggled on the home front, her work life also appeared to be falling apart. Despite the backing of union president Jacqueline Vaughn, Lynch found herself at odds with other union leaders, particularly Reece, Vaughn’s vice president at the time, who felt Lynch’s obsession with professionalism and reform was out of touch with the rank and file. Then, in January 1994, Vaughn died of cancer, and Reece succeeded her as president. That September, Kostakis died of a heart attack. Suddenly Lynch was an outsider in her own union.

But she didn’t want to leave Chicago, especially not with three children to raise. And she didn’t want to abandon her mission to transform the profession. “I decided to set my goals high,” she recalls. “I decided I wanted to become president of the union.”

The CTU old-timers had never seen a campaign like the one Lynch waged in 1996, two years after she’d left her job at the Quest Center. Usually teachers work their way out of classrooms and into the union hierarchy, where they play Machiavellian games, trying either to oust leaders or to replace them after they step down. Lynch did the opposite. She left the union office and returned to the classroom. She had no choice, really: With Reece in charge, there was no place for her in the union. But “to me, it was a win-win situation,” she says. “I wanted to run against Reece, and if I didn’t win, I still wanted to be a teacher.”

She found a job teaching special ed to 8th graders at Marquette, a large and ethnically diverse elementary school in a working-class section of Chicago’s Southwest Side. Immediately she became a force, implementing some of the classroom techniques she’d developed with the AFT in other cities. She was elected chair of Marquette’s Professional Personnel Adviser Committee, a group of teachers that plays a role in shaping school policy. She also became the school’s union delegate and helped put together a new reading program.

And of course, she began her first campaign against Reece. It seemed pure folly: She had almost no money and few local connections, whereas Reece’s delegates were eager to distribute literature in hundreds of schools. Lynch, however, did have something new to offer. Sandra Finkel, a union delegate at Franklin Fine Arts Center, an elementary school, remembers going to see Lynch at a meet-and-greet gathering. Only a dozen people were there, and Finkel was struck by how young, thin, and short the candidate was. Then Lynch launched into a talk about powerlessness. “She was expressing things that were so obvious to anyone who has ever taught in Chicago,” Finkel recalls. “But what made them so powerful is that I’d never heard it come from a Chicago union leader.”

During the early months of 1996, Lynch attracted a devoted band of believers. “She was dynamic and tenacious. That’s what really hit me, her tenacity,” says Jay Rehak, another early backer. “She was not fazed by the magnitude of her challenge. You could tell she was determined to see it through.”

Lynch hammered Reece for isolating union members from the decisionmaking process. The system, she claimed, had undergone two contradictory reforms in seven years. First, in 1988, the state legislature passed a law giving elected local school councils control of the city’s schools. Then, in 1995, the legislature reversed itself, stripping the councils of power and handing the schools over to Mayor Daley and his handpicked CEO, Paul Vallas. “Debbie pointed out that in each case, those laws were passed without consulting the teachers,” says Finkel.

The 1995 law also swept away many such time-honored bargaining rights as seniority and class size. “Thanks to the new law, Vallas could basically cram 35 kids into a class and get away with it,” says Lynch. “Despite the union contract that limits class size to 28 or 30, there’s nothing the union could do about it.”

‘This is not an administration working with teachers to figure out what’s best for the kids.’

Deborah Lynch

In contrast to Lynch, Reece was a low-key operative who rarely visited schools or appeared on TV. He certainly refrained from criticizing Vallas. In interviews in the late ‘90s, he let it be known that he worked well with Vallas and that they frequently banged out backroom agreements. As for Lynch, Reece pretty much ignored her. But behind the scenes, some of his backers ignited what Lynch calls a “whispering campaign.” They told reporters (including this one) that Lynch was unstable because of her sister’s murder and Kostakis’ death. Her race against Reece was the irrational act of a woman burdened with grief.

In the 1996 election, Lynch won only 27 percent of the vote, as Reece was elected to another two-year term. Yet when the race was over, she continued to campaign, setting her sights on 1998, which brought her closer to victory. “She never stopped. She understood it was a long process,” says Rehak. “You’d see her at union meetings, this small woman standing at the microphone, waiting to speak. They mocked her. They jerked her around. But she never lost her cool. She just kept at it.”

By the winter of 2001, her third campaign was in full force. (The union had changed the length of the president’s term from two to three years.) To heighten her profile, she wrote an autobiography, A Labor of Love: One Chicago Teacher’s Experience, put out by an online publisher. It reads like a manifesto, calling on teachers to take charge of their unions. Apparently the message hit home. On May 18, 2001, the union held its election. One week later, the final tally was announced: Lynch had won.

“I remember that night so clearly,” says Finkel. “We had a party at this place on the West Side. It was jammed. You couldn’t get in. Everyone was jubilant, absolutely excited. I remember Debbie gave a speech, but I didn’t really hear a word she said. I kept flashing back to the day when she was standing in that room with 10 or so people sitting at the card tables. And now she had won. Debbie Lynch was in charge of the union.”

Back in her office, after the meeting with the janitors’ and engineers’ unions, Lynch sits behind her desk, immersed in conversation with Victor Gonzalez, a field rep left over from Reece’s regime. The room is bright and plushly carpeted, large enough to contain two big desks, two sofas, and several chairs. On the main desk sits a set of folders filled with papers that Gonzalez, a savvy operator with deep political ties, desperately wants Lynch to read. It seems a press release got out that may have made their office look bad. She nods as he talks. “That’s how we did it before,” Gonzalez tells her. “Pam [a former union official] read everything that went out.”

Yolanda Velazquez, Lynch’s secretary, pops in to announce that the next appointment has arrived. Seconds later, John Frantz, an official from the school CEO’s office, appears. The ostensible purpose for his visit is to invite Lynch to help compose a mission statement for the schools. But he may be here for another reason. With the school closings in the past few weeks, Lynch has been critical of Frantz’s boss, Arne Duncan. Perhaps Frantz, an amiable, easygoing guy, has been sent to smooth things over.

They begin with a little chitchat. He tells her how much he admires her; she says she’s heard wonderful things about him. He describes the mission-statement group and asks if she’ll join. No problem, she says, provided one of her associates can join, also. That would be fine, he says and tells her the date of the group’s first meeting. She retrieves her Palm Pilot from her purse and pushes a few buttons.

“I think I can make it,” she says.

A moment of awkward silence ensues. The time’s come for Frantz to play his card—if he has one. He seems to be looking for a sign from Lynch. But she just sits there, smiling pleasantly. Outside her office, a few aides gather with more piles of paper for Lynch to read.

“Well, anyway,” says Frantz, “thank you for your time.”

He heads for the door as the aides stream in.

Lynch wants to change the future of education in Chicago by overturning a hierarchy in which teachers are lodged somewhere near the bottom.

This battle of wills between the offices of the union and the school CEO began the day Duncan announced, in early April, that the school board would be closing three under-performing schools. The next day’s newspapers described it as a daring plan—"the most dramatic step in seven years of reform,” the Chicago Tribune reported. Only 14 percent of the students at the three elementary schools—Terrell, Williams, and Dodge—were reading at or above “national norms on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills,” Duncan had told reporters.

“We don’t believe these schools, as they currently exist, will ever measure up,” he’d added. “There are better educational alternatives within walking distance.”

So, in essence, the board was sending the students to other schools. The teachers who would lose their jobs could apply for employment elsewhere in the system, though Duncan made no promise they’d be rehired. As for the closed schools, one would be shut down permanently, and the board would spend a year drawing up possible plans to reopen the others.

For his efforts, Duncan was praised by local business leaders, the editorial pages of Chicago’s major daily papers, and U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige. But Lynch was furious. Duncan’s announcement, she said, was a betrayal; he’d promised her, personally, that not one school would be closed without her input. (Duncan says he never made that promise.)

“This is not partnership, this is not leadership. This is not an administration working with teachers to figure out what’s best for the kids,” Lynch says today. “This is trying to look like you’re doing something instead of taking the years of hard work it takes to turn around a school.”

Within a day of Duncan’s announcement, Lynch had visited all three schools with crews of television reporters in her wake. What she heard and saw from teachers and students only solidified her point of view. They were three predominantly black schools in tough neighborhoods. “I’m not saying poverty is an excuse for low achievement; I would never say that because I don’t believe that,” Lynch says. “I have devoted my whole life to working in systems with high concentrations of poverty. I am saying that poverty is a predictor of low achievement unless you put in appropriate strategies. Where are their plans? There are no plans. They do not even know where they are going to send these kids.”

On April 24, Lynch led a group of about 250 protesters— parents, teachers, and activists—to a board meeting held, ironically, at a public school on the city’s West Side, not far from Dodge. The board members sat on a stage beneath a mural of African American leaders, including the late CTU president Jacqueline Vaughn. As the protesters’ chants of “save our schools” subsided, Lynch addressed the board in a voice that crackled with emotion. “We stand here today in the tradition of an African American leader,” she told its members. “We stand in her footsteps. Jacqui Vaughn would not take the closing of three schools serving the poorest children quietly, and neither willwe.”

She pleaded with the board to turn the schools over to theunion, promising to lead teachers—all summer and around the clock, if necessary—in the establishment of a new reading curriculum. Eventually the three schools could serve as models of teacher-parent collaboration. “We’re asking to be allowed to work harder and longer and truly be held accountable for our actions,” said Lynch.

Despite her plea, the board unanimously voted to close the schools. In the following weeks, however, its members offered words of reconciliation to and praise for Lynch. Duncan downplays the fray as relatively minor. “From time to time, we will have our disagreements,” he explains. “I still have tremendous respect for Debbie.” He even leaves open the possibility of allowing the union to intervene as a partner at other low-achieving schools. “We have a number of other schools that are struggling,” he says, “and we would love to work with Debbie to try to do something creative and different.”

Despite the board’s vote, many of Lynch’s supporters came away from the confrontation emboldened by her unwavering stand. They see the fight as the opening round in the upcoming contract talks. “I think they’re testing Debbie,” says Finkel. “They want to show her that they can do what they want to do and that they don’t need to ask her for permission.”

By 3:30 p.m. on this day in early June, Lynch is in the lobby of one of the city’s union halls on the Near West Side, greeting CTU delegates as they pass through the doors on their way into a monthly meeting. This is, by now, a familiar scene, and she’s surrounded by familiar faces: a socialist peddling his papers, Ted Dallas handing out fliers (this one calling Lynch’s first year in office a colossal failure), various activists passing out leaflets.

The delegates seem supportive. They shake Lynch’s hand, pat her back, return her hugs. She distributes copies of a newspaper article describing the high points of her first year. Her smile never fades, and she shows no sign of weariness. After an hour of hand-shaking, she enters the union hall and—seeing as this is a closed meeting, reporters not allowed—shuts the door behindher.

In the aftermath of the school-closings fight, many questions linger. Will Lynch drop her demands for the restitution of bargaining rights if Daley and Duncan come up with respectable raises? How much of a raise will she seek? If necessary, is she ready to lead the union on strike?

Lynch has refused to go into detail about negotiation tactics, but something she said recently indicates that the battle over school closings did nothing to lessen her resolve. That tussle, she said, was about “trying to change...deeply rooted attitudes and assumptions. It’s the same fight I’ve been fighting since I started teaching—what?—30 years ago. But don’t count me out. I’m as determined as ever. We’re still on our feet. I realize that this first year is just another step in a long process.”

And the union meeting is just another part of a long, but typical, day. It should run until about 7:30 p.m. Then delegates will gather at a nearby restaurant. If traffic is light, Lynch will be home in time to help her children with their homework and see them to bed. She’ll then get some sleep herself and rise early to start all over again with yet another meet-the-teachers session in the morning, as her campaign continues, with no end in sight.


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