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Karen Lewis: Fiery Chicago Teachers Union chief takes on wrath of Rahm (+video)

An Ivy League union organizer with deep ties to Chicago's community activists, Karen Lewis is emerging as the new face of resistance to a national education reform movement. She's a match for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's storied temper, backers say.

By Staff writer / September 14, 2012

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and thousands of Chicago Public School teachers march to the Board of Education's headquarters in protest in Chicago in this May 23 file photo. Lewis, the fiery former teacher leading striking Chicago teachers, has carefully built support for her cause of challenging education orthodoxy through community organizing in poor neighborhoods of the inner city.

John Gress/Reuters/File

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Karen Lewis speaks to roaring crowds with a preacher’s cadence and the righteous wave of a pointed finger.

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Chicago Teachers Union chief Karen Lewis speaks to suporters at Labor Day rally.

For parents and teachers fed up with the pressures of high-stakes standardized tests – and the literal heat of unairconditioned classrooms – the Chicago Teachers Union president is a superhero.

With the strike in the nation’s third-largest school district entering its fifth day Friday, the outspoken Chicago native and veteran high school chemistry teacher has emerged as the face of the fight for what she calls the “soul of public education.” 

News reports suggest that the two sides might be nearing a breakthrough after negotiations ended at 1 a.m. Friday. The union called a meeting of delegates for Friday afternoon, and though the purpose was not made clear, these delegates would be required to approve any settlement. Ms. Lewis told reporters she hoped students would be back in school Monday.

The biggest hurdles remaining appear to be resistance to a teacher-evaluation system and a demand that laid-off teachers be the first ones rehired.

Beyond the specific issues on the negotiating table in Chicago, though, the strike has drawn national attention because of a growing backlash over education reforms, ranging from teacher evaluations and layoff policies to the role of nonunionized, public charter schools. Much like the Wisconsin demonstrations last year, it taps into a broader political fight over unions during tight-budget times. But unlike Wisconsin, the issues in this fight also divide Democrats. 

"The fight is not about Karen Lewis," she told cheering supports at a Labor Day rally in the runup to the strike. "Let's be clear: This fight is about the very soul of public education – not only in Chicago but everywhere."

"We know there's a finite amount of resources, but we also know we didn't create that problem," she added. "Our children are not numbers on a spreadsheet: When you come after our children you come after us," she added. "We did not start this fight, but enough is enough."

Lewis lives and breathes union, supporters say. The daughter of educators raised on the South Side of Chicago, she has deep ties to grass-roots community groups, union colleagues, and public school parents. But she is best known for her capacity to fire up a crowd.

When CTU members in 2010 set out to find a leader with enough fight to take on the national education reform "juggernaut," they chose Lewis.

Teachers have long been feeling “belittled, disrespected, not valued as professionals… [and] Karen took our conversations from the teachers’ lounge and brought them to the forefront,” says Brandon Johnson, head of the CTU’s black caucus. Beyond Chicago, he says, “she has helped capture the imagination of people who have been alienated from what we call bad reform.”

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