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?

(page 3 of 4)

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Reform Before the Storm »
A timeline of the Chicago Public Schools

Q&A with Lewis: Part I | Part II

Within weeks of declaring his candidacy for mayor in November 2010, Rahm Emanuel announced an ambitious agenda to improve Chicago’s schools. The platform included a number of free-market-influenced initiatives, such as merit pay, and a longer school day. “Rahm, being Rahm, wanted to make Chicago the epicenter for reform nationally,” says Tim Knowles, the director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute and a charter school operator who has advised Emanuel on education. “No other big city carries that mantle now.”

The mayor did not try to hide his cards. His campaign was cochaired by Juan Rangel, the head of the growing UNO charter school network, and supported by some of the city’s wealthiest education reform advocates, including venture capitalist Bruce Rauner and Penny Pritzker, whom Emanuel later named to the Chicago Board of Education. Shortly after he was elected, Emanuel announced that Jean-Claude Brizard would be the new CEO of CPS. A former New York City science teacher, Brizard had clashed with the teachers’ union as superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York. He is a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, a training program for promising public school leaders, founded by the billionaire reformer Eli Broad.

In his inaugural address on May 16, 2011, Emanuel promised swift action: “As some have noted, including [my wife], I am not a patient man. When it comes to improving our schools, I will not be a patient mayor.” A month later, Emanuel’s appointed school board said the district could not afford the 4 percent raises teachers were scheduled to receive and voted unanimously to rescind them.

Lewis was dismayed but not surprised. “From the very beginning he was pretty clear about what his agenda was,” she says of Emanuel. “His agenda is the same agenda that we have seen throughout the country, which is an agenda of blaming teachers for everything that’s wrong with public education systems, not looking at any of the systemic issues.”

Before taking office, Emanuel helped shepherd a bill through Springfield that gave him carte blanche to implement his education plan. Signed into law in June 2011, Senate Bill 7—or SB7, as it is often called—was a direct shot at many of the benefits teachers had accumulated through decades of collective bargaining: It stripped senior teachers of protections against firing and linked tenure to performance reviews. SB7 also raised the strike threshold considerably, requiring the approval of 75 percent of all union members, and gave Emanuel the power to unilaterally lengthen Chicago’s school day and year. (Before the bill, Chicago schools averaged five hours and 45 minutes from bell to bell, according to CPS. Elementary schools now have seven hours a day; high schools, seven and a half. The new school year lasts 180 days, up from 170.)

Lewis was involved in drafting SB7, but she has since disavowed it. When I asked about her initial support for the bill, she interjected, “No, no, no, no, no! I am sick of hearing this support-the-bill crap. We didn’t have a choice, OK?” The legislation, according to Lewis, “was a steamroll job,” orchestrated by Jonah Edelman, the CEO of Stand for Children, a business-backed national reform group based in Portland, Oregon. “His little tiny self was down in Springfield pushing this, pushing that, buying up all the lobbyists. . . .We were told there would be a bill, and how hard it would be or how easy it would be depended on what we did.”

Indeed, at a panel discussion at the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival, a few weeks after Governor Quinn signed the bill, Edelman explained how Stand for Children used its deep pockets to hire 11 lobbyists—“including four of the absolute best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists”—and curry favor with legislators. The goal, he said, was to show teachers’ unions “that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats.” Captured in a video that went viral, he described Lewis as a “die-hard militant” and said she had made a “tactical mistake” in agreeing to the heightened strike vote requirement. “The unions cannot strike in Chicago,” Edelman boasted. “They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold to strike.”

The CTU proved Edelman wrong in May of this year when 90 percent of its members voted to authorize a strike. Behind the scenes, the SB7 experience may also have poisoned the well for the contract negotiation. Certainly, Lewis says, it hardened her against collaborating with education reformers going forward. “The unions have agreed to things that are absolutely terrible for their members because they’ve tried to work with these folks,” she says. “But it is never enough. These people want complete and total control. They want to actually destroy public education.”

With the longer school day now required by law, Lewis wanted to discuss with the mayor what the new day should include before the change went into effect in the fall of 2012. She had said that the union didn’t object to a longer day as long as it could be a “better day” that brought to schools neglected noncore subjects such as arts, physical education, and world languages. “The idea of taking the elementary school day and just elongating it made no sense to me,” Lewis says.

Seeking clarity, she met with Emanuel at his office in August 2011. It didn’t go well. “I asked him about it, and his basic response was, ‘Well, I can’t have kids on the street at 2:30.’ And I’m like, ‘So this isn’t about education. This is a baby-sitting issue, a warehousing issue,’ ” she recalls. “And then he got angry at me and cussed me out.” Three weeks later, Lewis reported the exchange to the news media.

For Lewis, the final straw came right on the heels of that meeting. At the end of the summer, the mayor announced his Longer School Day Pioneers Program, which offered $150,000 and a nearly 2 percent teacher raise to elementary schools that elected to waive the hours in their union contracts and add 90 minutes to their day—a full year before the law was scheduled to take effect. Lewis refers to this episode as the mayor “bribing” her members.

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