Maintaining that the Chicago Teachers Union is at a crossroads, Deborah Walsh has resigned as director of the CTU’s Quest Center to challenge Thomas Reece for CTU president.

“We must make the decision to become part of the conversation about change in Chicago education, or we can continue, under this leadership, going down the road where having a say about improving education is not our job, but management’s job,” says Walsh, who worked for eight years in the American Federation of Teachers’ national headquarters in Washington, D.C. before returning to Chicago to open the Quest Center in 1992.

“She misunderstands what the role of a union is,” responds Jackie Gallagher, spokesperson for the CTU and its current leadership. “A labor union’s first and foremost job is to represent its members, to get them a decent contract and work sites that are safe and conducive to performing their jobs.”

Walsh maintains, however, that she sees educational advocacy as “a fundamental union protection issue. If we don’t have a public school system, we don’t have jobs. The profession has to be seen as part of the solution. In this town, the profession should speak through its union.”

The CTU played no visible role in educational change until the Quest Center was opened with a $1.1 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the center seeks to develop teacher leadership in school change. The late John Kotsakis, a special assistant to then-president Jacqueline Vaughn, was the driving force behind the center and subsequent educational initiatives.

Indeed, Gallagher points to the union’s support of the center as an indication of its involvement in educational issues. And she notes that since Reece succeeded Vaughn almost two years ago, the union has had to deal with the Legislature’s overhaul of the school system. “We got a four-year contract and worked out contractual language and other programs so that schools could open on time,” she notes.

However, Walsh says that while she’s proud of the Quest Center’s accomplishments, “you can only take it so far without the advocacy of the union leadership.” Walsh declined to spell out an agenda, saying her campaign committee is putting one together. “I’m an advocate for standards and a fair, coherent system of assessment,” she says. Those issues are ripe now as the new School Reform Board of Trustees considers whether to carry out plans of the previous School Board to develop an assessment system that will match the student learning outcomes developed in cooperation with the union.

Over the past 13 years, the closest any challenger has come to toppling an incumbent president was in 1988, the year following the CTU’s record 19-day strike. That year, George Schmidt took 37 percent of the vote in his bid against Vaughn. Last year, Schmidt got 29 percent of the vote in a run against Reece, who had been vice president under Vaughn and was running for president for the first time.

Walsh, who is now a special education teacher at Marquette Elementary, says her campaign committee is assembling a full slate of candidates for officer and executive board posts.

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