On October 9, when Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey stepped to a podium to announce that the fiery Karen Lewis was suffering from a serious illness (later revealed to be a brain tumor), his days as a behind-the-scenes policy wonk were officially over. Now the acting CTU president, Sharkey, 44, sat down with Chicago contributing writer Carol Felsenthal to discuss what lies ahead for the union—and for the city’s public schools.
How is Karen?
She’s Karen. She is recovering well and, you know, cracking jokes, talking crap about people in power, including the mayor. I visited her in the hospital. The union has tried to be careful not putting out information that would invade her privacy.
I’ve heard the comparison that you’re the Karl Rove to Karen’s George Bush—that you are the smarts behind her.
Karen has plenty of smarts. She is very sharp, very well informed. So it’s not an apt comparison at all. There were features of our operation that I was involved in the weeds with more than Karen. That was my role. We didn’t need two people up there with big personalities. I sometimes think of it more that I’m a straight man in her comedy troupe. Like “Who’s on First.” Abbott and Costello.
Karen has a big reputation in the city for being very outspoken.
I think one of the frustrating things in public life is that people are categorized by labels—Black Panther, militant, heavy black woman. When you walked with Karen on the South Side, she was put on a pedestal. It was the reverse, the mirror image of her vilification elsewhere.
Are you looking to become union president?
I’m looking for Karen to get well and come back. Karen has a serious illness and needs time. I want to respect that and carry out her duties [until she has recovered].
How will your tenure as acting president differ from Karen’s?
People need to expect more of the same from the CTU. The things that Karen’s most known for, the stubborn defense of public schools and the willingness to speak truth to power, those aren’t going anywhere.
What are your priorities?
There are three things right now that are critical. First, there are the elections. Municipal elections will have a huge impact on what’s in the next schools contract. Second is the next contract. The current one expires in June of 2015, and negotiations will start on the next one this winter. And the final thing might not seem dramatic, but just to make sure that members’ rights are being respected.
What would you like to see out of the upcoming contract negotiations?
More time to do our job. You could accomplish that with fewer students in a class [which allows teachers to better focus on individual students]. Let teachers teach. The number of dictates that exist from the school level, the network level, and the district level about, say, how teachers are supposed to record grades, is mind-boggling. And stop closing schools.
What are your goals in the municipal elections in February?
We have seven rank-and-file members running [for aldermen]. We’d love to take away the mayor’s rubber stamp [in the City Council]. We’re trying to get an elected school board on the ballot in the next election. The mayor has managed to keep it off the ballot. But he and his alderman allies can’t keep it off indefinitely.
Why does Mayor Emanuel want an appointed rather than an elected school board?
That’s how Rahm gets what he wants: lots of charter schools that Bruce Rauner can put his name on. It helps Rahm build political control.
Which aldermen are standing in the way of an elected school board?
Joe Moore [49th Ward, in Rogers Park] is one of them. I’m furious with Joe Moore. He’s shown himself to suck up to power like nobody’s business. [In Illinois,] up to three measures can get on the ballot. Joe Moore made sure there were three trivial measures so he could do the mayor’s bidding and not allow an elected school board on the ballot—a measure that’s really important to people.
Would Karen have run for mayor had she not gotten sick?
It’s almost a semantic question. Karen put in a bunch of her own money to get on the ballot. Hundreds of people were working to get her on the ballot, trying to raise money, going around the city, passing petitions. How is that different from actually running? She didn’t say that to me, but that’s how I view it.
Do you have any desire to run for office?
I’m in elective office. CTU voted me into this position. I’m not in the mood to run for mayor or alderman.
What was your own education like?
I grew up on a dirt road in rural Maine and went to the local public school. My father wasn’t in the picture. I was raised by a single mom, Lee Sharkey, who taught at the local elementary school and was the editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal.
What about your children?
I have two boys, 7 and 11, and they go to Pritzker School. That’s not a charter, it’s CPS.
How long will you stay on the CTU board?
I don’t want to be here for another 20 years as a lifelong administrator. Someday I want to go back to teaching in Chicago’s public schools. I want to inspire the classroom.
Read more from Carol Felsenthal’s interview with Jesse Sharkey here.