Lewis leads Chicago Teachers Union
By Ashley Ulrich, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, October 22, 2012
Former Chicago public school chemistry teacher and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis ’74 is strongly committed to her ideas for education reform and said she is not afraid to make sure that her message is heard. Lewis recently led the CTU’s 26,000 members in a strike for the first time.
The strike left Chicago’s 350,000 students — comprising the third-largest school district in the nation — out of class for seven school days from Sept. 9-17. It also brought Lewis to the forefront of national media coverage amid her public standoff with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who formerly served as White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama.
The strike represented a strong statement by the teachers against recent limitations to their collective bargaining rights, according to Lewis. As part of a new law passed by the Illinois state legislature in 2010, teachers in Chicago are not allowed to strike for non-economic reasons and must have 75 percent of their members vote to approve a strike before they can walk off the job.
“I think that the strike was for us and our members a repudiation of our lack of power,” Lewis said. “There are so many bright, intelligent, hard-working people doing their thing [in schools] and getting blamed for things they’re not even guilty of. That frustration level — that’s sort of what happened.”
The strike ended when 98 percent of the union’s 700-member House of Delegates voted to accept a contract that included a longer school day, salary increases equivalent to a 17 percent raise over four years and rehiring preference for recently laid off teachers, according to The New York Times. Standardized tests will also function as part of teachers’ overall evaluations and will be phased in over a three-year period.
A number of serious issues face Chicago public schools that could not be legally addressed in the strike, such as the lack of social workers in the district, rising class sizes and school closures, according to Lewis. The school district also faces a $1-billion budget deficit this year, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“We have extremely high levels of child poverty in the district, and this is an extremely segregated city,” she said. “We have also had a ridiculous number of murders and shootings over the last few years, which our kids are heavily affected by, but we only have 430 social workers for 350,000 kids.”
Lewis grew up in Chicago and entered Mount Holyoke College at age 16. She transferred to Dartmouth for her junior and senior years to be with her boyfriend at the time and graduated as a member of the Class of 1974. She was one of just 24 female students in her class and the only black woman.
“I don’t think people realize this, but students and faculty voted against coeducation,” Lewis said. “[Coeducation] was something that the trustees decided to do, and it was not particularly welcomed.”
Although Lewis felt “completely blindsided” by the resentment she faced in her time on campus, she managed to find a close circle of friends with whom she maintains contact today. She studied music and sociology at the College and enrolled in medical school after graduation.
Lewis eventually dropped out of medical school and started teaching as something to do until she figured out what career path she wanted to pursue professionally. Both of Lewis’s parents were teachers in the Chicago public school system.
“I loved chemistry, so I decided I’d teach that,” Lewis said. “I just fell madly, passionately in love with teaching. It changed my life.”
Lewis was a member of the union from the time she started teaching in 1987, but said she increased her involvement after her school’s principal used favoritism to award teachers extra funds for their classrooms and bullied teachers that he did not like. The principal also encouraged special education teachers to modify students’ individualized education programs — a practice that was not only immoral, but also illegal, Lewis said.
“That really radicalized me,” Lewis said. “I became an associate delegate at the union and started advocating for people. I also served on the executive board for a while, but the reform caucus I was a part of only lasted for one term before we were voted out.”
Lewis eventually stepped down and returned to member status when she became frustrated by the slow rate of progress at the union. She credits this early exposure to union leadership with putting her in touch with “some smart, principled people working in that role.”
In 2007, a friend called Lewis about a new reform caucus made up of some of Lewis’s former union colleagues that was working to oppose the incumbent United Progressive Caucus. Lewis joined the group and became interested in the readings that they were circulating related to neoliberal thought and the effects that charter schools have on public education.
For a while, the group worked outside of the union system to spread its reform agenda, taking its complaints directly to City Hall with the support of local community members, Lewis said. In 2010, the group, which named itself the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, voted on a platform and asked Lewis to run as its candidate for CTU president.
“We were pressuring people to try to do the whole concept of unions differently,” Lewis said. “Reform caucuses don’t usually win. It was a surprise, but here we are.”
CORE won 60 percent of union members’ total votes, took over CTU’s leadership and appointed Lewis as the new president. Although Lewis was remiss to leave the classroom — what she called her “dream job” — she felt she needed to “change the conversation going on at the union.”
“I know that you can’t win every battle, but you have to fight,” Lewis said. “[Former President Marilyn Stewart] did not have an understanding of the global attack on teacher unions and on teachers. There was a vicious cycle of school closing and charter openings that was devastating our communities, and I didn’t feel like the union had an appropriate response.”
Lane Tech College Prep High School special education teacher Cynthia Smith said that Lewis is a “phenomenal person” with a “strong sense of social justice.” Smith worked with Lewis at Lane Tech from the 1990s through 2010, when Lewis stepped down to take on the CTU president post.
“She treats everyone kindly, but she doesn’t back down from what’s right,” Lewis said. “I know her to be an extremely ethical person in all my time with her. She’s a hero in her own right.”
Lewis “is and was a top-notch educator,” according to Lane science teacher James Keating, who also worked with Lewis.
“[Lewis] is a master of the Socratic method and a terrific Italian opera singer,” he said.
Although the legacy of the Chicago teachers’ strike has yet to be determined, Rockefeller Center senior lecturer and Public Policy Fellow Charles Wheelan ’88 said that the strike represented a breakdown in competing visions for schools that in the long run is “really bad for the city as a whole.” Wheelan grew up near Chicago and is a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.
“The education intelligentsia would like to see a fairly radical reformation to the way that we hire, pay, fire and train teachers,” Wheelan said. “The old model is really resistant to all that stuff. The strike absolutely reflects a clash of ideologies.”
Despite recent federal reform efforts, such as former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and Obama’s Race to the Top program, the results of the last 30 years of education reform have been “woefully disappointing,” Wheelan said. School choice programs, vouchers and charter schools have also not shown themselves to be particularly effective.
The CTU is not helping itself in the long run by fighting reforms like merit pay and changes to the tenure system, according to Wheelan. The lack of merit pay makes regular raises politically unpopular and acts as a disincentive for highly motivated and intelligent people to enter the field, he said.
“The union wants teachers to be treated like professionals, as they should be in a highly skilled and difficult profession,” Wheelan said. “But if everybody gets paid the same, they’re only paying people to do average work. They’re paying pitchers the same as people riding the bench.”
Rockefeller Center Associate Director Ron Shaiko said that the strike was not a “slam dunk” for either the teachers’ union or City Hall. Perhaps most notable is that the CTU faced such a strong challenge from a Democratic mayor, he said.
“The union movement in this country is on its heels — generally, but also specifically in terms of teachers unions,” Shaiko said. “[The strike] made it clear how out of touch the union is with the Democratic Party. They can’t make the kind of demands they’ve been making.”
The strike was also important in raising national attention about where most of the money in the education system goes — not to classrooms, books and salaries, but to pension plans, Shaiko said. Especially given that many other districts around the country are similarly facing budget deficits, pension plans will need to be renegotiated to make them sustainable in the long run, Shaiko said.
Lewis said, however, that education reformers such as former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein and education reform advocate Jonah Edelman have vilified teachers in their reform efforts, criticizing them for not looking after their students’ best interests. Lewis called their reform efforts disingenuous for being removed from the day-to-day education process.
“These people are hobbyists in the education field,” Lewis said. “[Teachers] are upset and frustrated. We’ve built and maintained relationships with parents and communities based on personal relationships.”