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

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

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.” 

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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.”

Yet her un-nuanced, firebrand style has also given fuel to those who see unions as making unreasonable demands and standing in the way of much-needed reforms in education.

Speaking at a conference last year in Seattle, she made a joke about the lisp of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former head of Chicago public schools, for which she later apologized. In a Labor Day speech, she called Mayor Rahm Emanuel a "bully" and a "liar," for which she did not apologize. "The only way to beat a bully is to stand up to a bully," she said, to cheers. This week, she quipped that she had to get back to the “silly” part of her day – referring to contract negotiations. 

“The teachers may see her as a hero, but I think she might be more like a Kamikaze pilot that’s bringing down the teachers unions nationally,” says Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “Showing the country pictures of angry teachers who don’t want to be held accountable … is not a winning message.”

When she first took over the helm of CTU in 2010, Lewis came across as naive when the union compromised on a state education reform law damaging to union rights and more often put her foot in her mouth, says Sarah Karp, deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago, an independent news magazine that reports on education. But  “even though her sound bites came off as curt … she can describe why she’s doing what she’s doing very articulately," she adds.

Teachers already felt resistant to top-down reforms when Mr. Duncan headed up Chicago schools, and Mayor Emanuel has continued to push such reforms with less relationship-building among teachers, Ms. Karp says.

Lewis’s relationship with Emanuel, who has called the strike unnecessary, is like “gasoline and fire,” The Chicago Tribune reports. Emanuel, a former member of Congress and chief of staff to President Obama, was elected mayor in 2011, notably without support from the Chicago Teachers Union. Lewis's supporters say she has more than enough moxie to stand up to the major's storied temper.

Lewis attended Chicago schools, Mount Holyoke College, and then Dartmouth College, where she was the sole African-American woman in her graduating class in 1974. A member of the union since 1988, she rose to power as part of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, a group that did not hesitate to take on union leadership as well as Chicago school district plans to turn over failing schools to charter operators – a move CORE saw as a dangerous privatization of public education.

In the years leading up to her election as president, Lewis and CORE listened to parents and community groups to build a platform, and “we as parents began to understand they wanted what we wanted … so when they won the leadership, we felt it was a victory for all of us,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Chicago Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) in Chicago. “We saw her as the champion, the superhero.”

Lewis is “funny, passionate, and very intelligent,” Ms. Woestehoff says, and “she comes from a place of understanding what it really takes to educate children, especially in Chicago.”

To understand her zeal, it’s important to see her along the historic continuum of civil rights leaders, Mr. Johnson of CTU says.

The rule about how to recall teachers once they’ve been laid off is a key issue on the table, for instance, and a rollback of the traditional rules disproportionately hurts veteran African-American teachers, he says. The union wants the school district to give priority to laid-off teachers, when schools are hiring. An important element of the national education reform movement, championed by Emanuel, is to give school principals the leeway to hire whatever teachers they think will be most effective in the classroom, regardless of seniority.

Moreover, Lewis has faced the same kind of racist and sexist denigration that has historically reared up against African-American women leaders, Johnson adds.

“This is heavy for her. You don’t just wake up one day and [suddenly] say, ‘I’m going to leave my classroom and take on the biggest civil rights battle of our time’.... For Karen to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ there’s a line of ancestors that said the same thing,” he says.

But to the degree that her social-justice rhetoric resonates within the community, there’s also a danger that people will end up being disappointed, Karp says. “The chances of them actually lowering class sizes, or getting more art teachers or social workers … are very small,” she says. “I don’t think the school district has the money to deliver on those things.”

 Even before the results of the strike are known, Lewis's stand has filled a vacuum in giving a face to the opposition to education reforms that have received bipartisan support in may states and school districts, Mr. Petrilli says.

“Karen is the first labor leader to present organized opposition to the destructive pseudo-reforms of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which are based on punitive actions and standardized testing,” says Diane Ravitch, a onetime NCLB advocate who is now one of its most vocal opponents, in an e-mail to the Monitor.

Union organizers say they expect 50,000 people at a Saturday rally in Chicago.

The district did not respond to a request for comment. Classes have been canceled this week for approximately 350,000 students. Some schools have remained open on a limited basis to provide meals and supervision. On Wednesday, the district’s CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, sent a letter to Lewis requesting that the union stop picketing at those sites.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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