Karen Lewis, Street Fighter
Obstreperous, loud, and unscripted, the Chicago Teachers Union president led the city’s public school teachers to strike against Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—and became a national figure overnight. Who is this person?
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View from the ground: Lewis on the second day of the strike
Shortly after 10 a.m. on day 2 of the Great School Strike of 2012, the long stretch of Western Avenue in front of Lane Tech was blanketed in red. More than 100 striking teachers at the elite North Side high school, all wearing the official color of the Chicago Teachers Union, paraded up and down the street, clanging cowbells and chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Rahm Emanuel’s got to go!” Cars and every CTA bus, police car, and garbage truck that passed honked in support.
Stranding some 350,000 students, the September walkout was the first teachers’ strike in the Chicago Public Schools, the country’s third-largest school district, since 1987. It cast a national spotlight on the influential reform movement that is bent on reshaping American public schools—and the dogged efforts of the Chicago Teachers Union and its little-known first-term president, Karen Lewis, to resist it.
After seven school days off, Chicago’s kids returned to their classrooms even though the contract was still being negotiated. In the tentative agreement, the union successfully blocked some of Mayor Emanuel’s most aggressive attempts to reform CPS by fiat. (More on that later.) What is not controversial is that CPS desperately needs improvement. In 2011, nearly 40 percent of Chicago’s public high-school students failed to graduate within five years, students’ ACT scores averaged an abysmal 17.2, and the school day and year were among the shortest in the nation. (Under recent state law, time in class is now on par with that in other big cities; see chart, below right). Meanwhile, some observers found the union’s fight for raises unseemly at a time when the city faces huge deficits.
The strike was the highest-profile pushback to date against the reform movement, which has attacked bad teachers and the unions that protect them. Lewis, a 59-year-old chemistry teacher and one-time standup comedian with a penchant for impolitic remarks, emerged as the flag bearer of the resistance, inspiring some Chicagoans and enraging others. “This fight is not about Karen Lewis,” she intoned at a Labor Day rally days before her more than 29,000 members took to the picket lines. “Let’s be clear: This fight is for the very soul of public education, not only in Chicago but everywhere.”
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The Chicago Teachers Union headquarters occupy a suite of generic offices on the fourth floor of the Merchandise Mart, the art deco citadel on the north bank of the Chicago River. Lewis was in good spirits when I met her there in June, at the beginning of a tense summer of negotiations. Her dreadlocked hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her nails were painted green with silver sparkles (she changes the color often). The room was littered with souvenirs: A glass block etched with the words “Bitch Brick” rested on her desk, and a pair of blue boxing gloves hung on the wall, a gift from a friend after Lewis told the Chicago Tribune she was going to buy some following the announcement of the mayor’s education team.
A Halloween mask of Rahm Emanuel’s face was tacked onto a shelf in front of Lewis’s desk, staring straight at her and leaving little doubt that she considers the mayor her chief opponent. Yet Lewis marveled that she and Emanuel don’t like each other more. “I don’t understand it,” she said, shaking her head. “We should be best friends. We have way more in common than we don’t.”
Shortly before he took office in May 2011, Emanuel invited Lewis to a dance performance and dinner at Henri, the upscale French restaurant across from Millennium Park. She said they had the same tastes—they both drank malbec and ordered the lamb—and talked about their shared love of ballet. They are also both Jewish. Raised Lutheran, Lewis converted in the early 1990s when she was “looking for something spiritual” and says she was drawn by the “idea that you could question God.”
The evening was meant to establish a working relationship. But the conversation took a turn when, according to Lewis, Emanuel said that 25 percent of students in CPS—or nearly 100,000 kids at the district’s current enrollment—were “never going to make it and that he wasn’t going to throw money at the problem.” The comment came to light a year later when Lewis talked about it in an on-camera interview with local NBC reporter Mary Ann Ahern; Emanuel denied it, calling the story “totally false.” The episode likely damaged whatever trust they had established.
“I don’t think he really cares about poor people, people of color,” Lewis says today of the mayor, reflecting on the incident. “I think he feels he needs to have a decent education plan so that people will want to live in Chicago.”
That she is willing to publicly and rather starkly characterize the battle with the mayor over education reform as a kind of class war hints at the ideological chasm between the two leaders. (Despite numerous requests, the mayor’s office and CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard declined to comment for this story.)
Almost soft-spoken in person, Lewis is a natural performer and a forceful orator, often building up a head of steam around a single point. She also has a tendency to take things too far. The unfiltered Lewis was on full display in a speech she gave to a convention of teachers last fall in Seattle, where she committed the gaffe that introduced her to the greater public. “I am the only black woman in the class of 1974 from Dartmouth College,” she said, only to deflate her own accomplishment in the next breath with a sarcastic “woo” and a glance. “People are impressed,” she continued. “Let me tell you, I spent those years smoking lots of weed. Self-medicating.” The crowd tittered.
This was just three minutes into a 32-minute ramble that veered from the bankruptcy of Milton Friedman–style capitalism to billionaire education reformer Penny Pritzker to the now-infamous mocking of the speech impediment of Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education. “This guy who has the nerve to stand up and say, ‘Education is the thivil rights ithue of our time,’ ” Lewis said, imitating Duncan. “You know he went to private school because if he had gone to public school he’d have had that lisp fixed.”
Lewis didn’t want to talk about the speech when I brought it up. But when pressed, she said the controversy marked the first time she realized she was a public figure whose personal actions could undermine her professional cause. “That was a turning point for me to understand that I wasn’t just Karen Lewis, schoolteacher, any longer,” she told me. “That this was serious and that there are people who are trying to destroy public education and would use me to do that for them.”
Photograph: (top) E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune