Defending Public Education: An Interview with Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union

Defending Public Education: An Interview with Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union

Karen Lewis, Jesse Jackson marching against Chicago school closings, March 2013. Photo courtesy CTU

In 2010, a slate led by Karen Lewis ousted the incumbent leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union, promising deeper community engagement and a more aggressive defense of teachers and public education. In 2012, with Lewis as president, CTU mounted the city’s first teachers’ strike in a quarter-century, and the most dramatic recent challenge to the bipartisan education reform consensus. For the inaugural episode of Dissent magazine’s podcast series, labor journalists Josh Eidelson and Sarah Jaffe sat down with Lewis to discuss teaching and gender discrimination, professionalism and solidarity, unions and the Democratic Party. An edited version of the transcript appears below. The full interview can be heard on the Dissent website. The interview was conducted in April, before the Board of Education voted to close fifty public schools in Chicago. —Eds.

Dissent: How does the current fight over school closures in Chicago fit into the larger aims of the union?

Karen Lewis: The school closures are one symptom of a really bad school policy that we as Chicagoans have been struggling with for over ten years. The leaders of No Child Left Behind came around and said, “Oh, if the school’s bad, we’re going to close it down because, you know, it’s bad.” As if the building makes something bad. And what’s happened is, as schools close, they destabilize other schools that are close by. So there’s this domino effect they never took into consideration.

Children don’t do better when schools close. They lose anywhere from three to six months on their learning or at least on their testing.

I kept saying, “Why are they continuing to close schools, open up charter schools that don’t do any better, and not even taking the kids that were in the schools that were closed?”

But that was never good enough for the “reformers,” so they started stepping it up. Instead of closing just one or two schools, they would close seven, eight, nine, ten. And they weren’t keeping up with the children. So when schools would close, if kids didn’t go to the school they were sent to, there was no way to find out where those kids went.

Not all of them went to private school, not all of them went to charters, and not all of them left town. So where were these kids going?

What inevitably happened was the increasing disruption of neighborhoods. Where I live, which is a kind of a gentrifying neighborhood, if I wanted to send my child to a traditional K–8 school, there would be none for my child to go to. And there didn’t seem to be a “master plan” about why they were closing these schools. It wasn’t like these were the worst performing schools. So it just seemed arbitrary and capricious.

D: How is the problem of violent crime in Chicago connected to problems with the schools?

KL: Chicag...