Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has had some ugly squabbles with Rahm Emanuel—the longer school day battles, for starters, including his recent charge that the union is “cheating children out of an education”—and, in my opinion, she has often emerged the loser. 

Last week, she filed the CTU’s latest lawsuit against the city, charging that the school board is using its “TeacherFit” questionnaire to hire teachers who are willing to buck the union.   

The camera doesn’t favor her, and in her battle to stop the new mayor from pushing through a longer school day, she seems on the side of outmoded, lumbering labor. Who, after all, wants to deny Chicago public school kids more time for math, reading, lunch, and recess?

But in person, Lewis, 58—South Sider (grew up in Hyde Park, now lives in the Oakland neighborhood), CPS lifer (Kenwood, ‘71), daughter of two teachers, former high-school chemistry teacher (Sullivan, Lane Tech, King College Prep), wife of a now-retired CPS P.E. teacher—has a sharp sense of humor, and intelligence and articulateness to spare. After an hour spent with her at a conference table at the CTU’s headquarters in the Merchandise Mart, if someone asked me to choose a few words to describe her, I’d say “substantial, self-confident, direct.”

Here’s part one of an edited transcript of our conversation—about Rahm, Jean-Claude Brizard, Arne Duncan, and the longer school day. Tomorrow, look for part two, in which she discusses Obama’s presidency, the Occupy Chicago movement, her experience at Dartmouth College, and why she left the classroom for the board room.

CF: When I interviewed CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, I asked him whether it would make much difference if the Department of Education were eliminated (as a few of those vying for the Republican nomination for president have suggested). Would you consider that to be a big loss or a manageable change?
I think the Department of Education should be run by someone who’s qualified to run it. I have an issue with who’s running it, not with the Department itself.

CF: So you have an issue with [Secretary of  Education, former CPS CEO] Arne Duncan?
Yeah, because he has a bachelor’s in sociology from Harvard and played basketball [he’s an education expert]? I think he’s completely and totally unqualified to do this job. And to me, it’s sort of indicative of how education is such a political tool now, as opposed to [his] having a real bent toward education. I think this is a way for Obama to try to make an olive branch with Republicans. There’s this mentality that outsiders and people with no education background are the… experts…. They want to privatize public education…. Arne’s policies here were a disaster.

CF: Give me a couple of examples.
The whole idea of school closings and turnarounds and charter schools…. [When they closed a school] children were not going to other schools, especially in high school.  They were choosing not to go to school…. They had never thought about the ramifications of what a school closing means. So if I close a school here, now this means that my children have to walk through gang territory…. There was just no understanding of community…. There was somebody sitting with a spreadsheet and making decisions without having any experience in that community.

CF: So Arne Duncan becomes Secretary of Education because he has the ties to the Obamas through the University of Chicago Lab School?
Yes…. From what we understood—and I wasn’t in the room, so who knows—there was a choice between [Stanford Professor] Linda Darling Hammond—who is a respected researcher, has a PhD—and Arne Duncan, and you pick Arne? …. To me this would be like having a custodian in a hospital be the Surgeon General. He has worked in the hospital. He’s had some experience, but now you’re going to put him in charge? 

CF: What accounts for Arne Duncan’s kind of golden aura?
He’s tall. 

CF: Rich Daley did not appoint educators to be CEO of CPS. Is it a hopeful sign to you that Rahm’s pick, Brizard, has been a teacher and administrator?
It should be. Unfortunately, this job is so political; it’s infinitely more political than it is educational….  He’s not the superintendent; he’s the CEO—that’s a very business, political piece…. People also complained about the fact that people of color had no place in this administration…. So here was a perfect opportunity to get someone with an education background and who was a man of color because that wiped out a whole lot of criticism…. He’s going to ratchet this up and be Arne Duncan on steroids. I don’t think his color or his education background make a bit of difference if he’s part of the same political, bad-policy piece.

CF: Did you ever have your meeting with Brizard? [There was much press coverage of their public argument last month over where the meeting would take place.]
No. We had several meetings before then, and what happened was I thought this is just getting out of control, that our meetings were taking on some sort of mythic proportion…. Quite frankly, at this point I don’t really know what it will all accomplish because I don’t think he’s the ultimate decision-maker in his organization. 

CF: Is Brizard Rahm Emanuel’s mouthpiece, a kind of a figurehead?

CF: Did you have another meeting with Rahm Emanuel?
Nooooo. The last one didn’t go so well.

CF: That was the one where he unleashed some profanities?
Oh, yes.

CF: Who would have been your ideal pick for CPS CEO?
 Linda Darling-Hammond…. I would like to see someone who has an education background and who understands what works and is not ideological or political… and who’s not pushing a privatization issue. 

CF: Rahm’s decision to send his kids to the private U of C Lab school—does it matter?
I’m actually glad that he did because it gave me an opportunity to look at how the Lab school functions…. I thought he gave us a wonderful pathway to seeing what a good education looks like, and I think he’s absolutely right, and so we love that model. We would love to see that model throughout. 

CF: Brizard wanted to you to be part of coming up with 25 suggested schools that could implement a longer school day. Did that end with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Labor Board’s decision in your favor and the [CTU] Board’s asking Attorney General Lisa Madigan to go to court for an injunction stopping CPS from offering money to teachers whose schools vote in a longer school day? 
We… knew the waivers [of the union contract] were illegal when they did them. And I don’t know whether they thought we were just going to say, “Okay.” ….So I got a letter saying they wanted 25 more, which made no sense…. We’ve told you we don’t want to do this, that this should be a planning year [next school year will bring the longer school day to all schools, no matter the CTU’s position] and now you’re asking for 25 more schools? You can just help me do something illegal…. It’s not logical, and so no I’m not interested in discussing 25 more schools.

CF: The 13 schools that have the longer school day—are they continuing on course?
The nine that have already done it, the board has said… that they weren’t going to go back…. The Board of Education is like the worse schoolyard bully ever. “I’m just going to do what I want to do. I don’t have to follow the rules.”


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Linda Darling-Hammond was the first black dean of the college of education at Harvard University. We regret the error.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune