CFL News
September 12, 2011

Going glove to glove with Mayor Emanuel

Bullied and bludgeoned by weeks of intense public debate over a longer school day, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis fought back Friday by filing an unfair labor practices complaint against Chicago Public Schools leadership

Source: Chicago Tribune

By Joel Hood

The woman who once promised a boxing match with Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the rights of teachers and the hearts of Chicago's public school children is getting up off the mat.

Bullied and bludgeoned by weeks of intense public debate over a longer school day, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis fought back Friday by filing an unfair labor practices complaint against Chicago Public Schools leadership and accusing Emanuel of trying to intimidate her in a profanity-filled tirade recently at City Hall.

The time had come, Lewis said, to make a stand.

"Everybody knows who Rahm Emanuel is. He wants to win. He's dirty. He's lowdown. He's a street fighter," Lewis said. "This is Rahm Emanuel trying to prove a point, trying to flex his muscles. He's trying to put his fingers in our faces because he ultimately wants to bust this union, bust all the unions."

In many ways, Lewis, 58, a brash, tough-talking South Side product of Chicago's public school system, is an unlikely foil to Emanuel and CPS leaders in the national push toward longer school days. Teaching wasn't a career she sought out, but rather one she stumbled into when she wasn't sure where life would take her.

Teaching, though, was in her blood. Lewis' parents were both public school teachers in Chicago, and that formed the foundation of her middle-class upbringing in Hyde Park. In little more than a year, the woman who was kicked out of school in the second grade because she was a "discipline problem" has become the leading voice for schoolteachers in the city, galvanizing the rank and file to fight school closings, salary disputes, ballooning class sizes and slights against teachers.

In the mayor, Lewis has found an equally brash and tough-talking adversary.

"Rahm is not negotiating, he's announcing," said Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education. "But Karen is smart. She's not backing down, and I think in a lot of ways she's ideally equipped for what is the most challenging moment in any teacher union battle in Chicago."

Street-smart and quick-witted, Lewis left Chicago after high school to attend Mount Holyoke, a liberal arts college for women in western Massachusetts. She later transferred to prestigious Dartmouth College in the Ivy League, proudly proclaiming she was the only African-American female in her graduating class in 1974.

"I grew up knowing I was going to go to high school after elementary school and go to college after high school. I didn't know you had a choice not to go to college," Lewis said.

Lewis' roots were in education, but her passion was science. She studied chemistry and, after moving to Oklahoma with her first husband, returned to Chicago to enroll in medical school. She hated it.

She then became a substitute teacher in chemistry, content to do it, she said, "until I figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up." But she was hooked.

"I fell madly, passionately in love with teaching," she said.

Lewis taught chemistry and advanced placement chemistry for almost 20 years at Sullivan High School and later Lane Tech College Prep before returning to King College Prep High School, blocks from where she grew up.

"Students really liked her sarcastic wit. They knew she wasn't someone who was going to easily give them an answer," said King Principal Jeff Wright. "Karen is true to herself. She's very authentic."

Wright said Lewis actively built relationships with her students' parents, giving them her cellphone number and sending emails home every week detailing what assignments had been completed and what was coming next.

"It's easy to get a sound bite from Karen because she speaks her mind and she's going to tell you the truth as she sees it. She doesn't hide from things," Wright said.

Lewis had long been active in union issues and an outspoken critic of the district on school closings that she said demoralized students and their parents. Lewis said she found her voice as a union delegate fighting then-CPS chief Arne Duncan on school closings in 2008, rallying teachers and the community to fight what many saw as an unwinnable battle.

"I'm a person who's passionate about teaching and learning, but I'm also passionate about justice," Lewis said. "What I saw was injustice, and it was going unquestioned."

She was thinking about retirement in 2009 when a groundswell of support from teachers, aching for a strong leader and a powerful voice, prompted her to run for union president. Some now say Lewis' tough talk has gotten her into trouble midway through her three-year term.

Lewis initially supported a Senate bill Emanuel had endorsed that aimed to strip power from the Chicago Teachers Union by making it easier to lengthen the school day without its consent, to dump ineffective teachers and to limit the ability to strike. Union members were outraged, and Lewis pulled her support from the bill, saying someone had sneaked in and changed it to make it tougher on them.

More recently, in the flare-up over longer school days and teacher compensation, Lewis declined an offer by CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard to sit on an advisory committee studying the issue. Some criticized Lewis for complaining publicly that teachers should be part of the debate, then turning her back on it.

"The lines of communication have to remain open," said Brizard, who said he admires Lewis' passion for education. "Whether we agree or disagree, we have to keep talking with each other."

Robin Steans, executive director of the education advocacy group Advance Illinois, said Lewis and Brizard need to find some common ground to communicate.

"You never know what can be accomplished until you sit down and talk," Steans said.

Tension between Emanuel's camp and the teachers union simmered during the Senate bill debate and on the campaign trail as the prospective mayor heaped praise on independently run charter schools, whose teachers are largely not union members, and pushed for a new system of teacher accountability in CPS that tied salaries to student achievement.

Union advocates have long fought such a salary structure, saying school conditions, parental support and principal leadership play as big a role in a student's success as classroom instruction. Lewis took the jabs personally, saying Emanuel's ideas on education were yet another public show of disrespect for a teaching profession under siege. Though the union did not formally endorse a candidate for mayor, Lewis made it clear members would support just about anybody but Emanuel.

The battle has escalated in recent days over the administration's overt push for longer school days in the face of union opposition. The chronically undeperforming CPS has among the shortest school days and school years of any major urban district in the U.S. Emanuel has made extending the day by 90 minutes a central piece of his turnaround efforts, arguing that students are more likely to succeed when they spend more time with teachers. It has the added benefit of providing a safe haven for students living in violent communities, he said.

Lewis bristles at this notion, saying the pervasive problems and instability in CPS may ultimately make longer school days a detriment to students.

"The longer school day is a distraction from what's really going on in our schools, which is that we have an incoherent, ridiculous curriculum that people don't want to address. We have real problems, structural problems," Lewis said. "Because if we're doing the same thing and only doing it longer, all we're doing is torturing children."

A record budget deficit this school year prompted CPS' board to rescind 4 percent raises allocated to teachers in the current contract agreement. CPS has the power to implement a longer school day across the district in 2012-13, but Brizard dangled 2-percent raises for all elementary school teachers if they agreed to lengthen the school day beginning this year. Lewis, offended, said curtly, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Lewis now accuses Emanuel of political posturing and CPS leaders of pressuring teachers to sign waivers to override their union contract and extend the day. Five elementary schools have signed the waiver and more are considering it, enticed by pay bonuses for teachers and up to $150,000 in additional money for the cash-strapped schools.

Lewis said that when she met with Emanuel recently to clear the air, he told her he wanted the union to support longer days and a longer year. She said she accused the mayor of wanting to extend the day not to boost student performance but simply to warehouse and baby-sit children.

"He gets up and starts cursing at me, yelling at me, being very disrespectful," Lewis said. "So I jumped up, too.

"With Rahm, it is all about ideology. He's making a political point. This isn't about education."

Asked on Friday about the meeting, Emanuel declined to give details but said he and Lewis parted on good terms.

Lewis said a shift in ideology over the years — away from a cooperative, family environment to a more cutthroat business model — has contributed to a gradual decline of teacher morale in CPS. Beyond the legal maneuvering of the Emanuel administration, Lewis said she worries most now about the students caught in between.

"This is experimentation on our children, another experiment," Lewis said. "These are moral questions. I have issues with this."

Tribune reporter Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah contributed to this report.

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