Chicago teachers sue district, claim racial bias

Three teachers allege the "turning around" of schools has led to decline of African-American teachers in CPS.

December 27, 2012

Becky Vevea, Associated Press contributing

The Chicago Teachers Union and three teachers filed a lawsuit against the city’s school board Wednesday, claiming it’s practice of firing school staff to improve performance discriminates against black teachers.

The three African-American teachers allege that the district’s practice of “turning around” failing schools disproportionately affects minority teachers. They’ve filed for class-action status.

“We’ve seen an overwhelming, disproportionate harm visited upon black teachers, who through no fault of their own, are being singled out in these schools as responsible for low test scores essentially,” said Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the teachers union.

The teachers — Donald Garrett Jr., Robert Green and Vivonell Brown Jr. — all lost their jobs at the end of last school year when the school district approved turnarounds at their schools. The three schools — Chicago Vocational, Tilden and Woodson South — were among a record total of 10 school turnarounds.

The practice, the lawsuit alleges, has contributed to the steady decline in African American teachers in Chicago Public Schools.

It’s true that most of the “turnaround schools” are in predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities on the south and west sides of the city. Layoffs are largely determined by enrollment, and those areas have had larger population declines since the city tore down many of the public housing projects.  

Still, the lawsuit argues that comparable enrollment drops in a number of largely white, North Side schools haven’t seen significant layoffs.

Chicago schools spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus says that district officials can't comment on the lawsuit. But she says the district remains committed to doing turnarounds and "has an obligation to expand high-quality school options ... in every neighborhood."

The percentage of minority teachers has declined significantly over the last decade. Dan Kleinman, the policy director for the left-leaning Action Now Institute, said preliminary research they’ve done shows that the number of minorities graduating from colleges of education in Illinois has remained steady and even increased in recent years, while minority hiring in CPS has gone the opposite direction.

The lawsuit filed Thursday is not the first time union leaders have tried to take action on the issue. In 2009, when the current union leadership was an activist caucus within the union, they filed “administrative charges” on behalf of six minority teachers who were displaced during turnarounds that year. Those charges were never filed in a formal lawsuit or brought to trial.