Carol Felsenthal
On politics

CTU President Karen Lewis: Race, Class at Center of Education Debate

In part two of my conversation with the Chicago Teachers Union president, she shares about her time at Dartmouth College, why she left the classroom for the CTU job, her thoughts on the poverty gap, and more…

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen LewisIn part one of my conversation with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, she discussed her views on Rahm Emanuel, Jean-Claude Brizard, Arne Duncan, and the longer school day. Below is an edited transcript of the rest of our chat, in which the former high-school chemistry teacher shares about her time at Dartmouth College, why she left the classroom for the CTU job, her thoughts on the poverty gap, and more.

CF: You left the classroom in June 2010 to take over the CTU. Were you growing weary of teaching?
I was perfectly happy being a King High School chemistry teacher…. I had died and gone to teacher heaven. I had great relationships with my parents and my students. I felt completely supported by the administration and by my colleagues.

CF: Do you imagine yourself going back to be a classroom teacher?
Yes. My term is up in 2013, and I’ll make a decision whether to run again.

CF: So tell me about your life before teaching and the union.
I left Kenwood after my junior year and went to… Mt. Holyoke and [then] transferred to Dartmouth, just as it was going coed.  

CF: What was your major at Dartmouth?
I always say graduation. I don’t really remember Dartmouth that well. It was a really awful experience. I’m the only black woman in my class. So it was like being a complete and total pioneer…. I barely graduated…. I changed my major about every 15 minutes. But Dartmouth was an interesting experience. It just taught me that you have to persevere…. People did not want us there. The faculty and the students did not vote for coeducation; the trustees did, so there was a lot of hostility toward us.

CF: And then what?
I got married right after graduation and moved with my first husband [since deceased] to Oklahoma…. His father and my grandmother grew up in a small black town in Oklahoma. They had known each other for years. I always say my first marriage was arranged because they got us together…. I met my second husband at school…. Now that one was really arranged because the kids got us together. I met him when I was teaching at Lane Tech….. He taught there for 30-some years.

CF: Your early work life?
I worked in a variety of places… and then I decided I wanted to go to medical school, so I took all my classes over again, and I… went to medical school for two years here at UIC, hated every minute of it…. And I said, “Well, let me teach until I figure out what I want to do,” because I didn’t want to do what my parents did…. I just fell madly in love with teaching. I loved chemistry; I could explain it to kids who maybe struggle with math and science. I taught AP but also loved teaching regular…. I adore teenagers…. I found that [girls] were really good at [chemistry], and I think I was always shocked by this whole idea that girls aren’t as good at it as boys are. And a lot of girls told me it was because of stuff I told them [that they pursued science]…. My father [taught drafting and shop at Kenwood] was a proto-feminist. He did not see any difference between boys and girls…. We [Lewis has one younger sister] used to go to the All-Star game at Soldier Field. I was about eight, and I’d say,  “Daddy there are no girls on the field.”  “Oh, don’t worry about that, there will be girls playing when you get going.” He really believed that…. He taught me how to bat left-handed when I was a little kid because he said, “In the major leagues, right field is always shorter; you have an advantage.” I never knew I wasn’t going to play major league ball.

CF: So how did you end up out of the classroom and in the Union job?
At Lane [she taught there for 15 years] I ran for and won election to the local school council. It was a very frustrating experience because the teacher voice was absolutely dismissed; there was an agenda that was already there…. I ran for the associate delegate job when it came open. And then I eventually became the delegate at Lane, and there were some things that I would see… that were not good for kids, and I also saw this whole trend of starting to blame teachers for everything. I also saw that there was more and more added to teachers’ plates, but I didn’t see the support to come along with it. 

CF: What’s a typical day like for you? How many days a week do you work?
A 12- to 16-hour day is what I’m working right now…. If I get a Sunday off, I’m all excited…. Plus, I do tons of reading and trying to keep up with all the latest in policy…. [Like] Diane Ravich’s book… She’s very clear about the effects of poverty on children, and it’s so disingenuous to me that the people here don’t want to deal with [it]… They say, “No excuses.” This has given them an excuse not to address the issues of poverty…. We’re talking about an achievement gap, but we don’t want to talk about the poverty gap…. I went to… a [all-teachers] book club…. We were doing some readings by professors here who were actually looking at this path of school closings…. and it turns out it’s a real estate issue. It’s not an issue of the schools are bad. There were areas that were being gentrified throughout the city, so they started closing schools in these areas, and then we see this pattern nationwide…. Chicago’s the incubator for a whole bunch of madness, so we decided that we had to do something about it, and we approached the union and said, “What are you doing?” We would just like the union to come out to the school closing hearings, and nobody was there…. [The hearings] were so perfunctory. You know the decision’s already been made, so the parents sort of beg for their schools…. Nobody from the board there, other than somebody who looked 15 and said, “I’m representing the CEO.”  No board members… no union members….. Our group started going to all these school closing hearings, and going to all the charter school opening hearings and testifying…. We wanted to move our union in a much more organizing model as opposed to just a straight business model. ….We said, “Well maybe we should consider an electoral strategy.” I’d been elected as a member of the executive board [of the CTU]…. I never worked here. I didn’t want to work here. I just wanted to see change in the schools. I also saw this huge trend of bullying principals, of just running roughshod over people and frightening teachers….  When I first started teaching, teachers were very outspoken, and they would advocate for kids and advocate for a better curriculum…. Then, all the sudden, I just started seeing fear because principals were like,  “I will fire you.”

CF: In the just-published Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson writes that Jobs met with President Obama and told him that the American education system was “crippled by union work rules. Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs also told Obama that principals should be allowed to hire and fire teachers based on merit.
I know. Most business people feel that way.… Unions are pesky. And god forbid there be some democracy. The problem is that public education is the last of… any part of democracy in this country because rich people have bought everything. They bought access to the politicians, … to government, on a level that’s unprecedented….  When people talk about merit, what are they talking about? They’re talking about whether I like you or not; whether you are my friend…. Principals have the ability to hire, and they utilize [it] as a way of controlling people. They’ll say, “If you’re not happy here, you could always go here.” The fact is that unions are demonized because the people that really run this country would like nothing more than to have complete and total control over everything.

CF: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s appeal is based [in part] on his encounter with that teacher where he basically shouted her down and told her to shut up. How are you finding Gov. Quinn?
So nice; he’s a very nice man…. He has said from day one that he would never sign a bill that would end collective bargaining…. I think Gov. Quinn has grown into his position. I don’t think he ever thought he was going to be the governor.… I think it takes time to grow into roles of leadership, and I think he’s doing that.

CF: Tell me about Occupy Chicago, what role will it play.
Occupy Wall Street and the whole concept of the 99 percent is an extraordinarily important movement…. It’s almost nonpolitical. It’s not about Republicans and Democrats. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have—that we are in country right now that has one party, and that is the party of money, and we have two branches of it…. College graduates have no jobs to go to; people who have been working for years and years [are unemployed]…. We have this problem in Chicago, with teachers who are in their 40s and 50s, and, quite frankly, predominantly black, who have been laid off…. We’re seeing the decline in what used to be the middle class, but this huge rise in the immense amount of wealth, and with it, the political power to buy not only the political piece but to buy the media, to… get people to buy into a message that is against their self-interest.

CF: You’re rooting for this movement?
I am. I think what’s going to happen is that this movement will grow, and more and more, people will be a part of it. And at some point, the people who are in a position of power are going to have to start taking us seriously, and they’re going to have to make changes in the way they do business.

CF: How do feel about the Obama presidency?
I don’t really have a lot of faith in politics right now…. The political process doesn’t favor us. We have, in terms of education, failed policies by this president, by the previous president, by the previous president….. If you look at the top ten richest people in America, nine of the top ten people have invested tons of their money in so-called education reform. And you have to ask yourself, why are they so interested in education reform, and especially public education? You look at Bill Gates. He didn’t go to public school; he certainly doesn’t send his children to public school.… He pushed all this money around the small schools [movement]… and when that turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, what did he do? Did he come on TV and say, “My bad, I’m sorry, I made a mistake.” No, now he’s come up with something else.… He has corrupted the educational academic side. [Researchers, Lewis argues, will find what the funding source wants so they can keep getting funded.]…. The Waltons; Warren Buffett, by virtue of the fact that he’s given a lot of money to Bill Gates’ foundation; Eli Broad; all of these people who have been putting money and money and money into education. And all they come up with is, “Let’s just get rid of all the teachers; let’s have a national curriculum; let’s test people to death.” None of this stuff works; not only does it not work, it exacerbates the problem.… Standardized tests have been disguised as merit when they’re just ranking and sorting, and they’re disguising race and class privilege. We don’t want to have those discussions….. We don’t have honest discussions about education in this country because we don’t want to have honest discussions about race and class.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune


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