On Friday, June 18—the last day in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) school calendar before summer break—fifth grade dual language teacher Sophia Lukatya was abruptly called into her principal’s office at Carl Von Linné School in Avondale. To her surprise, she was handed a letter notifying her that her position had been eliminated due to budget cuts.
Since the Local School Council (LSC) had recently approved a budget for the next school year, Lukatya assumed that the teachers would have been alerted earlier if there were going to be cuts. Wholly confused, she asked questions to clarify the cuts, all of which her principal said she was not able to answer.
“I was absolutely devastated. I was just heartbroken,” Lukatya said. “I was not thinking about how this affects my personal financial situation; I was thinking about how devastating it would be for my students…I’m still part of their community and the adults that they know care for them. So to be so intensely and forcibly, without any care or tact, told that I’m removed from that, it’s all like an absolute punch in the gut.”
Unfortunately, Lukatya’s experience is not unique. In fact, staff cuts occurred a lot at the end of this school year—more than 400 times. Though hundreds of staff cuts occur every year, this year’s layoffs may inflict additional trauma on students in the wake of a global pandemic. Worse, though CPS said the cuts are part of a “normal allocation of resources,” many teachers felt that their actions were retaliatory.
On June 21, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) received Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s layoff list, which included over 443 arts, music, and drama teachers; teacher assistants; English Learner Program Teachers; bilingual staff; restorative justice supports; and more. These cuts come after President Joe Biden announced his American Rescue Plan of 2021, which sent $1.8 billion in federal funds to CPS specifically to help the district recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and to prevent layoffs.
According to the CTU, the large majority of these cuts occurred in underserved communities including North Lawndale, Little Village, and Englewood, which were also disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and where, in North Lawndale, three neighborhood schools were targeted for closure just last year.
One of the main factors contributing to the unequally large amount of layoffs on the South and West sides is Student-Based Budgeting (SBB), which was implemented by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013. Though previously CPS allotted each school a certain number of teacher slots and covered the cost of the teachers regardless of their salary, under this new system, the district distributes money to schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of the students’ needs, potentially impacting the number of positions teachers can fill on an annual basis.
While CPS claims that this type of funding is “fair and equitable,” since the dollars follow the students, a 2019 study conducted by the Illinois Labor and Employment Relations’ Project for Middle Class Renewal found that SBB contributes to racial inequality by starving schools of resources almost exclusively in Black neighborhoods.
Specifically, the study finds that “low budget schools are clustered in Black neighborhoods experiencing distress from low incomes and unaffordable housing.” CTU also notes the exodus of families from these schools and states they are caused by city policies such as shutting down public housing, placing a charter school nearby, or promoting gentrification.
CTU wrote, “When families leave the neighborhood school suffers. As a result, majority-Black and a growing number of Latinx schools have lower percentages of librarians, music, or art teachers compared to other schools in the district.”
“There’s a lot of societal difficulties that are making it harder for parents to bring their kids to school. It’s more disenfranchised communities that are being further disenfranchised by this policy,” said Lukatya. “So I think the school-based funding, and the attendance-based funding then creates larger ripple effects, which allows for mass layoffs at the end of the school year.”
To Mary Fahey Hughes, Special Education Parent Liaison at Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, SBB hurts the schools in greatest need, such as those that don’t have programs like arts, music, and drama. Departments such as these can make the difference between a student staying in school or dropping out.
“[SBB] has been anything but supportive,” said Hughes. “It undermines the idea of a whole school, like a holistic learning where every student has access to all the wonderful things that CPS has to offer. It’s a racist and classist system right now that benefits whiter, wealthier families and really undercuts the neediest students, and it’s morally reprehensible that the Mayor, the Board, and CPS support and have stood by the system that lets go of teachers every June.”
In the wake of the teacher layoff announcement, an overwhelming number of teachers from South Side schools have come forward to express their grievances, according to the CTU press release and press conference. At Fenger Academy High School in Roseland, six staff members were laid off, including the assistant principal and reading in the social sciences teacher Xochitl Infante, who spoke at the June 23 Board of Education (BOE) meeting.
Curie High School in Archer Heights school clerk Denna Myron was also laid off after publicly speaking about the need to accommodate educators with medically vulnerable household members, and teacher assistant Willie Cousins at Carrie Jacobs Bond Elementary School in Englewood was cut even after being an active paraprofessional and school-related personnel leader during the 2019 strike.
Cheryl Dudeck, a science teacher at King College Prep in Kenwood, was also laid off, despite having taught in CPS for twenty years, nineteen of which were at King.
“On Friday, I was called down to the principal’s office and read a script regarding my position elimination due to budget constraints,” Dudeck said at a CTU press conference. “When I tried to engage in conversation, I was given the hand and told that there could be no conversation. I was not thanked, nothing else was said to me. I was told I needed to follow the directions in the letter from human resources. The conversation that I wanted to have with the principal was regarding my endorsements. My national board certification endorses me to teach all science courses. I’m also endorsed to teach special education. Recently, a physics teacher with no classroom experience has been hired, which is a board policy of making decisions based on saving money rather than student needs.”
To Dudeck’s understanding, King College Prep will no longer offer human anatomy and physiology for physical education credit, and there will not be any science electives or Advanced Placement science classes for her students to take next year.
At the onset of the pandemic, drama teacher Lauren Kullman, who’d been at Florence Nightingale Elementary School in Gage Park for four years, had been dealing with myriad health issues, including myelofibrosis, autoimmune disorders, and thyroid disease. These conditions prompted her to begin the long, drawn out process of filing for an accommodation. On top of this, daycares were closed due to COVID-19, so Kullman and her husband stayed home to care for their three- and five-year old children.
In April, CPS began requiring all vaccinated staff to either return to in-person work or to seek a new doctor’s certification saying they could not. Kullman re-submitted paperwork on her ongoing health issues and childcare situation, and two weeks before the fourth quarter began, her accommodation was denied.
As her only available option, Kullman was forced to apply for an unprotected, unpaid leave of absence. A day later, she was told that due to lower enrollment, the school would be closing her position to acquire a counselor or social worker instead. To Kullman, however, drama class is social-emotional learning and has been an essential beam of light during the dark days of the pandemic.
“The arts and theater support us so emotionally—that’s how we get through. The kids who come through my theater program, by the large majority, aren’t going to go into the world of theater for a profession, but they have a release there, they have a place they feel accepted. They have a place where no one judges them, especially with people who are in the LGBTQ community…[the theater has] historically been a place of acceptance…And CPS wants to be thought of as a top-rated education. You can’t not have the arts in a top-rated education at all schools.”
Along with providing emotional support during the pandemic and beyond, participation in the arts also correlates to better educational outcomes. Students with high arts participation and low socioeconomic status are five times less likely than their peers to drop out of school, according to findings from four longitudinal studies. Furthermore, according to the College Board, students who take four years of arts and music classes score on average more than150 points higher on the SAT than students who take only one-half year or less.
Kullman worries that her students are not going to be supported in the same way now that her position has been cut.
“Most will just swallow the fact that there is no more drama and move on, and it will be a really sad reality that they will not have the support of a teacher who cares deeply about them and who they care about. I taught so many students online through this whole year and last year, and we’ve built relationships that are even deeper on some levels. And that is going to be pulled from under them without a real explanation.”
Having received her master’s in bilingualism in Spain, Lukatya believes that multilingualism is important for children’s development and should be prioritized in the classroom.
“The vast majority of the human population on this earth is multilingual. And for us to be only teaching one language in school is detrimental for students’ brains, detrimental to their worldview, and detrimental to their culture,” she said. “[For] Chicago, having such a ginormous and beautiful and vibrant Latino community, it’s just so devastating that the public education, in my own personal case, tears Spanish-speaking teachers from schools and consistently devalues the needs of bilingual education. Because our kids deserve for their home language to be spoken in schools, they deserve it, you know, and anything less is detrimental to their academic and emotional growth.”
To Lukatya, the job cuts have destabilized the community she has worked so hard to make a welcoming space. Not only did she give her time and energy to her eighty-five students, on August 20, 2020, she was also arrested at an eviction protest with the CTU in order to keep her students in their houses. And yet, in return, she feels CPS’s actions diminish teachers to mere numbers in a calculation.
“We have our logging number, our ID number, even our school number; we’re just like numbers on a spreadsheet,” she said. “And that’s how CPS chooses to treat all the amazing educators throughout the districts, but that’s not how our students see us. They’re not reaching out to me, because they want their grades to be good. You know, they’re reaching out to me, because they know that I care about them.”
Having taught for eight years, and being a CTU member and special education teacher herself, Katie Osgood believes that CPS needs every possible teacher that it can get, not less.
Hughes emphasizes the importance of special education and states that firing special education teachers, especially at this time, can have devastating, long-lasting effects on students’ futures.
“[The students are] not getting the robust supports they need. There are so many special ed classrooms that have long-term subs who are not certified special education teachers. And there’s a reason there’s a certification for special education, because it requires more knowledge, more intensive supports, more detail, more planning, more relationship building with the students. And so if they don’t have that special ed teacher with that sort of extra training, [that] is when you miss out.”
According to Hughes, special education teachers that get laid off in June are often unsure if they will be rehired, so they obtain work in the suburbs. Thus, they are no longer in the CPS talent pool, leading to a shortage of special education teachers in the district. Hughes argues that these teachers have extra value and need to be treated in a way that reflects this.
Furthermore, she has heard from frustrated parents about many children who have been left behind in the past year and whose needs were not met. “That they would be laying off anyone is criminal,” she said. “It’s just so short-sighted and cynical. It just doesn’t support the kind of restorative education necessary in this climate.”
According to a letter CTU published on June 21, CTU will actively oppose every layoff, including those that are retaliatory.
At the CTU press conference, Thad Goodchild, CTU deputy general counsel said, “At worst, many of these layoffs appear to be retaliatory. Amongst the 443 educators notified they would be laid off are several CTU delegates and prominent activists who publicly advocated for safety as CPS moved to reopen school buildings during the pandemic. Retaliation for that sort of activity is prohibited both under our contract and under Illinois law.”
Having just gotten full bargaining rights back and on the verge of getting an elected school board, Lukatya—a CTU member herself— suspects the CPS administration’s actions are merely hiding behind the facade of a budgetary issue when in reality the layoffs are a counter against active union members. She believes this could be the case at many other schools in the district as well.
“The budget thing doesn’t line up. On my last day in the building, [my school] posted a position on the CPS careers website,” she said. “There is a lot of retaliation going on, whether or not CPS is directing principals to retaliate against outspoken teachers and people that are active in the union, I don’t know. But from my perspective, it certainly looks and feels that way.”
Osgood agrees that the layoffs are imbued with anti-union sentiments and on June 23 posted a letter for the BOE on Twitter urging them to start investing in CPS staff. This letter was one of many remarks read at the CPS board meeting that same day, in which multiple teachers relayed heart-wrenching stories about their feelings toward the mass layoffs. As of yet, the mayor and the board have not replied to their grievances.
“People understand that the district’s responses [are] cold and callous and wrong,” said Osgood. “And they could reverse these layoffs today. They’re acting like their hands are tied. They’re not—they have hundreds of millions with more coming in at their disposal right now to make this kind of thing, this kind of instability, stop. And they’re choosing not to, and they’re doing all these other nonsensical things that no one cares about.”
With the influx of extra funding available, Lukatya also hopes the board reverses the layoffs and that the union continues to support teachers and their individual grievances. Lastly, she hopes that funding can be restructured to be more equitable across the city. Instead of spending money on cops in schools and on revamping standardized testing, she hopes that CPS will prioritize its students with smaller class sizes and safe spaces for them to build relationships.
In a recent statement, CPS said they will be hiring for over 2,000 teaching and staff positions for the upcoming school year. While this is more than the number of cuts, Kullman highlights the fact that the teachers who have lost their jobs have already spent years building trust and forging strong, interpersonal connections with the students, most notably during a remote year. And now, after a year of tremendous effort to support their children, they are being torn away from that community without explanation.
“I feel like especially when we get higher up into the politics, the funding, we forget that it’s the kiddos that this affects,” said Lukatya. “[The board is] not thinking about the actual kids, and what is really tragic about this is that the teachers are the people that are thinking about the kids, you know, because we’re with them all day, every day, and we’re the ones that get hurt. It’s us and the kids that face the consequences of these really immoral decisions.”
After being laid off on that Friday, Lukatya said she has no regrets for standing up for what she believes. “I’m not able to let an injustice be there right in front of me, and not say or do anything about it. So perhaps that makes me a bad teacher. Does it make me a bad person for my students? Absolutely not. Does it make me a bad teacher to two principals? Probably.”
Correction, July 23, 2o21: The story has was updated to reflect the correct years that Lauren Kullman has worked at Nightingale Elementary.
Lily Levine grew up in Los Angeles and is a current student at the University of Chicago studying global studies and health and society. She last wrote about hospital food pantries at U of C Medical Center.