Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Karen Lewis Says Good Riddance to Penny Pritzker

The CTU head talks about the outgoing school board member, as well as Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Bruce Rauner, and more.

Penny Pritzker

Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Penny Pritzker at a Board of Education meeting, February 27, 2013

Anyone who follows Karen Lewis knows that the outspoken Chicago Teachers Union president is no fan of Penny Pritzker, who resigned today from the Chicago School Board, presumably because President Obama has informed her that she is his pick for the Secretary of Commerce job. 

I caught Lewis in New York to ask her who she’d like to see replace Pritzker, whom Lewis has lambasted and lampooned at rallies and protests, in videos, and even in a coloring book. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: First, will you and the CTU have any input into whom Mayor Rahm Emanuel selects to replace Pritzker?

KL:  [Laughs, at length.]  Of course not. That is what mayoral control means. The mayor appoints the school board members. We need to have an elected board. The appointed school board has to stop. It’s undemocratic.

CF: If you did have input, who would you like to see take Pritzker’s place?

KL: Jitu Brown, an education organizer from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. He should be on the school board. I would like to see somebody other than big business types. Or Dwayne Truss from the Austin neighborhood [and vice chair of the Austin Community Action Council]; someone with neighborhood ties…. But really, it doesn’t matter who’s on that board. People who sit in those seats vote the same way all the time…. [The board] is ineffective and harmful.

CF: Is there anybody on that board who you think is doing a good job?

KL: Nobody on the board is doing a good job…. It’s too political.

CF: Are you guessing like I am that Penny Pritzker issued her resignation today to take the commerce secretary job? 

KL: Yes, probably, but I’ve heard that she has wanted to resign for more than six or seven months. I’ve heard that she’s just unhappy on that board. So it could very well be unrelated.

CF: Will Pritzker have a difficult time getting confirmed?

KL: No, first of all, the President no matter who he or she is,  should have who they want in the cabinet. But I think the country will learn who she is.

CF: Can you see yourself in Washington at her confirmation hearing testifying against her?

KL: I have no interest in this. I don’t follow this stuff. It’s so not relevant to our children. I wouldn’t have any energy to fight Penny Pritzker. If that’s the job she wants, she can have it.

CF: So you see the commerce job as irrelevant to anything you’re interested in. How about another cabinet position, secretary of education? Arne Duncan is staying on for the second term. Cabinet secretaries don’t generally last one term, much less two. Would you like to see someone else in that job?

KL: Yes. Arne Duncan is totally unqualified, embarrassingly unqualified. Why does Arne get to stay on? That is one position that Obama can say he’s reaching across the aisle.  Republicans love Arne.

CF: So you believe it matters to public school children who the education secretary is?

KL: Of course it matters. I would have liked to have a real leader for public education in that job.

CF: Who? 

KL: Linda Darling Hammond, or even Diane Ravitch.

CF: Penny Pritzker is known as a huge advocate and donor to charter schools. You’re known as a huge critic. Will her leaving hurt charters?

KL: Charter schools haven’t been able to keep their promises to educate children better and more cheaply, and children who need services the most are kicked out.  Charter schools have lost their sheen.

CF: When we last talked Jean-Claude Brizard was superintendent. The Mayor replaced him with Barbara Byrd-Bennett. How’s she doing?

KL: She’s very nice and smart, has lots of experience with kids, teaching, knows what it is to be a principal. She’s the right person.

CF: Should it be a requirement that people appointed to the school board have or have had children in the public schools? What I’m getting at is: should people who children attend, say, the University of Chicago Lab School or Frances Parker, be disqualified from serving on the board?

KL: If people have their kids going to Frances Parker, which has an amazing progressive curriculum that doesn’t test students to death or line them up during lunch break and order them not to socialize, those people should do their best to bring the best practices of these schools to the CPS schools. Bring the kind of education you buy for your children into the public schools. Yes, I’d like to see that.

CF: Another object of your scorn and criticism has been businessman Bruce Rauner,  and he has written an op-ed harshly chastising the CTU and CPS. He is exploring the possibility of running for governor….

KL: I think he’s extreme. He’s got serious problems. He invited me to be on his trade and tourism board. [Rauner chaired Chicago Convention and Tourism and is now chairman of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism bureau.]

“Thank you very much but no thank you,” I told him. Now he can’t speak my name without spitting. He’d make a miserable governor. Like most rich people he thinks he’s smarter and better.

CF: You’ve had some vivid differences with Mayor Emanuel. Has he reached out to you, say invited you to lunch or dinner?

KL: No, no rapprochement, but I’m always available.

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