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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Karen Lewis Fires Back About Elected School Boards and the Chance for a Strike

The outspoken head of the Chicago Teachers Union had a lot to say about ex-CPS board member Henry Bienen’s recent comments.

Karen Lewis in January  Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Henry Bienen—former CPS board member, friend of Rahm’s, and president emeritus of Northwestern University—had a lot to say about the Chicago Teachers Union and its president, Karen Lewis, when I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago.

When I asked CTU’s press secretary if president Karen Lewis, who is now battling brain cancer, or acting president Jesse Sharkey would care to respond—Bienen said, among many criticisms, that the union “never met a reform it likes”—I was surprised to get a quick call back from Lewis. In the voicemail she left me Saturday, she complained that Bienen, who has just left the CPS board, “never paid attention to me, has never spoken to me, [and] doesn’t know what [the CTU] is doing.”

Lewis led the union out on strike in 2012, had a famously contentious relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and planned to run against him before becoming ill. She and I spoke by telephone Sunday afternoon. She offered several counterpoints to Bienen and also answered every question about CPS/CTU I could cram into the 45 minutes allotted for our conversation.

Here’s an edited and condensed transcript.

Bienen claimed that you tried to put the brakes on the expansion of the International Baccalaureate program because the number of minorities in IB schools “is smaller than [in] the school system as a whole.” In your voicemail to me, you called Bienen’s remark “stupid” and mentioned that Jesse Sharkey taught in an IB program.

I think he completely mischaracterized my opposition. It wasn’t to IB. It was to the way IB was being used by principals to lay off the teachers that they did not want in their buildings; to use it as a way to do a turnaround, so to speak.

Did you ever have a conversation with Bienen about your take on this?

At some point I had conversations with every board member except him and Deborah Quazzo. He doesn’t know what I thought and what the “union” thinks. When parents would come before the board with questions, he never even made eye contact, like “I have to endure these unwashed masses in front of me.”

On the board that Bienen served, were there other members whom you saw as noticeably, audibly more receptive to the public?

Mahalia Hines and Carlos Azcoitia [both of whom had previously served as principals] were very receptive. Jesse Ruiz [who served as acting CPS CEO until the mayor appointed Forrest Claypool to the job last month] was good at that. Jesse is an interesting guy because Jesse has a big heart. He’s a real mensch.

Are the new members that Rahm appointed to the board last June more acceptable to you than those they replaced?

I haven’t got a sense of them yet because I haven’t been to any board meetings. I’ve been sick. Right now we’re trying to get another contract.

What about Forrest Claypool, the Mayor’s pick as the new CPS chief?

I’ve had a couple of [in-person] meetings with Forrest. I’ve found him to be a very nice guy, and not dismissive. That’s a good thing.

The three CPS CEOs who have served during Rahm’s tenure—Jean-Claude Brizzard, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and now Forrest Claypool—were hand-selected by the Mayor. It appears the board had no input. Would it be better if the board did?

We have mayoral control. So if you have mayoral control, the mayor has to pick and be responsible for that ultimately. I think this is the one thing Henry [Bienen] got right. Board members allow staff to basically tell them what they’re doing. I think that’s a lazy way of doing a public service. If you’re just relying on staff, then why not have staff make all the decisions?

You mean, just say who needs the board?

Yeah. What do we need a board of education for? You alluded to that in one of your questions to Bienen. Why are the votes seven to zip or six to zip?

What’s your answer to that?

Because the issues have already been decided before they take the vote.

Bienen opined forcefully that an elected school board would damage public education in Chicago. I know you favor an elected board. Do you see one on the horizon?

When the public continues to ask for one and demand one, that’s when it will happen; when we hold legislators accountable for making sure that it happens [Ed. note: an elected board requires General Assembly legislation]. Why is it okay for every other district in the state but not for Chicago? What’s that about? I think at some point people have to be accountable for that. The only place you can be accountable is at the ballot box. This is interesting to me because [the demand for an elected board] is coming from all over the city. It’s not coming from just one part of town anymore. You know how things work. They don’t work overnight. If people are expecting things to happen overnight then they believe in unicorns. You still have to build the groundswell and the basis for that happening.

Bienen said that one of problems with an elected school board is that the union would have too much control over selection of its members.

I have absolutely no idea where that came from; it made absolutely no sense to me. As far as I’m concerned, who will have the most control over an elected school board are the people who can bankroll elections like they do everywhere else.

Bienen argued there would be a low election turnout because “most people couldn’t give a hoot.”

I would ask, what are the school boards like in the suburbs? What are the school boards like in rural areas?

In the suburbs, some of those school board elections are hotly contested. That leads me to another question that I asked Bienen. Should members of the board be required to have children in CPS? He said no, and forcefully. Should there be a couple of seats reserved for current CPS parents?

I think the way the board is constructed now is poorly done. It should be much more representative, an elected representative school board. I would suspect it would look very different.

So it might have a couple of spaces reserved for parents?

I wouldn’t say reserved. I would expect that current parents would run and want to run. I’ve been looking at this is suburban areas. They really have a lot of parents who are interested in being school board members; that’s who’s interested, as opposed to business people.

Has your relationship with Mayor Emanuel improved since his reelection? [It was Lewis, after all, sidelined by illness, who persuaded Chuy Garcia to challenge Rahm in the primary, which pushed Emanuel into an exhausting and humiliating runoff.]

I think that my relationship with Rahm is better. That’s a good thing. He’s the ultimate decision maker. I can just run [my ideas] up the flagpole by Rahm. And he has been very open. I think part of the problem we had last time is that Rahm had an agenda that was pushed by other people, including [Gov. Bruce] Rauner, that I don’t know if Rahm even truly believed in. A lot of it was kind of like, “Put the union in their place and dah dah dah.” The elephant in the room is the budget and not having any money. So then it becomes a matter of what your priorities are, what your vision is. And I think we have yet to see that, but I think [Rahm’s] thinking about it.

Do you meet with the mayor in person?


Does he seem more humble or polite?

He’s much more polite. I think he realizes that we wasted time. And the thing that bothers me the most is the notion that Fitch or Moody’s keeps talking about the acrimonious negotiations or the acrimonious discussions between CPS and us. It hasn’t been like that at all. We have differences of opinion, but there’s respect. And I think that’s the thing that is bubbling up that’s so much nicer than before.

Is there a possibility there will be a teachers strike this fall?

I have no idea what there will be. We have been trying to get a one-year extension basically. That’s what we’ve been working on. Why are people so freaked out about a strike again? Why is that even an important question at this point in time? We don’t have an agreement. We don’t have anything right now. Could we just figure out how to open up schools and keep them open, get some money in the coffers, and move forward? That’s what we have to talk about.

One of the points Bienen made is that the CTU was never willing to go to Springfield and lobby the General Assembly for more money—“We asked them to do that going back to the negotiations in 2012 and they wouldn’t do it”—but that now the CTU has finally realized that are no more reserve funds, no more money; it’s over, it’s done, and now the CTU will be going to Springfield to lobby.

That’s a lie because, again, he clearly doesn’t know what CTU’s lobbyists have been doing for the last three years. The issue becomes, lobbying for what? I’m not going to lobby for money to go to Teach For America. I’m not going to lobby for money for testing. But the notion that CTU and CPS will go down to Springfield hand-in-hand singing “Kumbaya” is nuts. We have different priorities, so we are all lobbying for a variety of things that he may not know about, but again this is what really shocks me about your article is that he’s talking about stuff that he has absolutely no real notion of. We’ve been lobbying for more money since, oh my gosh, 2012.

The most repeated line from my Bienen Q&A was his contention that the CTU “has never met a reform it likes.”

What is he talking about? We’ve never met a corporate reform that we like. That would be true.

This question that has entangled Barbara Byrd-Bennett—the SUPES business, the principals training program—were you hearing negatives about that program?

Yes, absolutely. They’ve been complaining. And it’s been a very interesting evolution. All of a sudden instead of the principals being anti-CTU, principals were actually in favor of some of the stuff we were talking about and doing. We always complain about professional development that is neither professional nor develops us. Good professional development is best done by practitioners.

You mean individuals who have been there and done that?

Yes. The problem is that most professional development as it’s done now is about somebody selling a product. It’s not really about trying to get things done. It’s about who has got the best marketing technique to get you to buy into a product. I think also professional development has kind of turned into a one-size-fits-all. And that doesn’t work. I can tell you that personally because [since I’ve been sick] I’ve gotten rid of all my old clothes and am continually buying new clothes. One size does not fit all.

My sense is that you and Byrd-Bennett bonded and had a close relationship. Is that true?

She and I regularly met so we could go over issues that were problematic. She always got back to me whenever I asked her for help on certain issues. Yes, we had a really good relationship, and I think it moved a lot of things forward that may or may not have moved forward under another administration.

Your relationship with Jean-Claude Brizard was more standoffish?

Actually he and I got along very well too. The problem was he was not allowed to get along with me and there was this kind of weirdness between us because of his limited role in what he could do.

Bienen argued strongly that the CTU cares only about protecting the benefits of its members. [“I think their reflex is to say, ‘We’d rather have cuts than lose benefits and lose salary’… On health benefits, we pay them all, essentially. They’re completely resistant to paying anything on the health side.”]

That’s the problem with him because he doesn’t know anything about our union. He doesn’t know that we have a professional development center, that we have the best national board certification training in the entire country because we’re interested in teacher quality. He wouldn’t know that because he’s busy listening to sound bites and taking the easy way out. Should I apologize for getting good stuff for our members?

Bruce Rauner has suggested that bankruptcy may be the best solution to CPS’s horrendous budget problems. What’s your response?

I think that’s very irresponsible, and I think it gets into his notion of what he thinks bankruptcy is, and what it looks likes based on his experience tearing up companies and feeding off of their carcasses. So I don’t know. I don’t begin to try to think about what Bruce Rauner has in mind for anything.

Since you went public with your illness, has Governor Rauner been in touch?

No. Nobody from the governor’s office has reached out to me, so I didn’t think they wanted to talk to me [about the financial crisis] and I’m not one to horn in where I’m not wanted.

How are you feeling? You sound good.

I feel great. You caught me on my last day before chemo week, starting tomorrow. But this week before chemo I’m always feeling grand.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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