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: Chicago has a very different gang structure than most other cities. We’ve got a lot of Capulets and Montagues. There’s no hierarchy. In Chicago, this block may be fighting against the next block. And they’re not just defending drug territory. They’re defending respect. Because our children have so little of it, if somebody disrespects them, it escalates outrageously.

Part of the problem is that we don’t have counseling programs for children early enough. And we have almost gotten rid of play in preschool and kindergarten because we are so busy trying to get them to pass tests that we don’t focus on the things that actually build their social and emotional learning along with their academics. Some of the conflict resolution that you should learn in play has disappeared.

In Chicago, we have issues of safety and a murder rate that is out of control. Think about Hadiya Pendleton, the young woman who was murdered after she’d performed at Obama’s inauguration. She actually went to the school where I taught before I left the classroom, and I knew one of the kids that was involved in her killing. In Chicago, this stuff touches everybody.

“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?”

When a school closes, our children have to walk from a neighborhood they know, where they know where the safe streets are, to one they don’t know. It takes a while to do this process right. But the authorities want to rush it through, and this won’t even save the money they claim it will.

D: I’m also interested in the role that gender plays in the fight over education. I know that Gloria Steinem wrote to you, saying that teacher-bashing was anti-feminist.

KL: Well, some 87 percent of K–12 teachers are women. There was a time when teachers were revered in the community, and now they’re often demonized. Teachers have been an easy target, primarily because we’re not used to fighting. We’re not used to a lot of confrontation. We’re used to saying, “Whatever you want me to do I’ll do it because we all care about what’s best for kids.”

So, when people told us, “Go get masters degrees, because that will make you better,” teachers rushed out and got masters degrees. Then it was: “Get endorsements in ESL [English as a second language], or special ed, or whatever,” and we rushed out and did that. Then it was, “Become National Board-certified.”

But it is never enough when the goal is really to destroy public education. That narrative that “teachers don’t care about children” makes no sense. So I get up every morning to deal with children I don’t like or I don’t care about? It’s just not the kind of thing you do.

We have to turn this discussion around and make sure people understand that we are now living in bizarro-world. We’re supposed to think that the elite, who are very wealthy and very well educated and don’t send their children to public schools, care more about black and brown children they don’t know?

Part of the issue about gender is something that we don’t ever bring up because it makes people very uncomfortable. There’s still this paternalistic attitude of, “I’d like to protect women” combined with, on the other hand, “Let’s cut them off at the knees. Let’s put women out of work”—women who may be caring for their own children and families.

And it’s also a kind of mythical thinking, as if children don’t have their own parents who love them, that they don’t live in communities with few appropriate places for the parents to work. So my question has always been, “If you love black and brown children so much, why do you hate their parents?”

D: I want to ask you about teachers and professionalism. To counter the attacks on teachers’ benefits and bargaining rights, we hear some union leaders emphasizing the training that goes into being a teacher and the idea that they belong to unions of professional workers.

At the same time, you have some teacher unionists who specifically reject professionalism as an organizing principle and call themselves education workers. They argue that talking about professionalism obscures class dynamics and divides teachers from the person who watches the kids during lunch and the person who cooks the kids’ food. What do you make of that?

KL: I think people need to find where they feel most comfortable. It’s not an either/or.

My experience has been that the people who serve the food, the people who work as paraprofessionals, those are the people who actually have experience with children in those neighborhoods, because most work in the neighborhoods in which they live. And they are also the ones who can tell you exactly what’s going on in a building. If you want to know something about a child, well, ask one of the lunchroom workers. They will tell you exactly what’s going on in that child’s family.

Still, professionalism is important on one level because the billionaires boys’ club is saying, “We don’t need professionals. We could just train somebody for five weeks and throw them in there and let them do it,” like in the army.

But, in Chicago, there is a coming-together of the different unions. We’re working right now with other unions that represent the janitors, the security workers, and the lunchroom workers, because school closings affect all of us. We have to defend professionalism, but we can’t defend it as the only thing we’re doing.

D: I wanted to ask you about the transformation that took place within the Chicago Teachers Union, with the CORE [Caucus of Rank and File Educators] caucus sweeping out the folks who had been running the union. I think observers on all sides recognize that your strike would have been hard to imagine before the transformation that took place within the union. Should locals in other cities follow your lead?

KL: I think every local has to decide what works for them. If you’re teaching, you know that every kid isn’t at the same place, so you have to vary how you teach them. Some people are ready to accept a different way of looking at a union. But other people don’t agree with us and say, “I just want you to enforce a contract. I don’t want to do this other stuff. I don’t want to march. I just want to go in my room and teach.”

The only problem is, you cannot wake up tomorrow and be in yesterday. So part of the issue is that what we wanted [when we challenged the union leadership] and what happened were two different things. We did not have an electoral strategy. We came together as a group of people that wanted to study the issue and wanted to move our union in a different direction.

When we ran, there were five caucuses running at the same time. Changing culture is absolutely the hardest thing you can ever do. To shift unions from the service model to an organizing model takes not just a few people that want to do it; it takes the will of rank-and-file members to become empowered in their schools and in their union.

I would think that any union wants its members to be more involved and to have fresh ideas. But right now we’re in a resistance mode. It’s funny how the opposition describes the unions as being very powerful, because we don’t feel that way. If we’re going to exert some power, we have to make that true.

D: You’ve talked and written about recognizing who your enemies are. Just because people are Democrats does not mean that they are not enemies. Does there need to be a break in the relationship between the teachers unions and Democrats?

KL: You know, this is the part that’s the most difficult for me, because I hate politics, actually. For a long time I’ve felt we live in a one-party system. We just have two branches of it.

The key is to use the political system to hold our elected officials accountable through mass movements. I would like to see a whole new party that speaks for working people. But the way our system is set up, it’s very difficult to have good conversations about third parties.

Let me give you an example of why that doesn’t work well. In Illinois, in 2010, before we got elected, the teachers unions in Illinois decided not to give to the Democratic Party. So that’s how we ended up with Senate Bill 7 [which includes restrictions on teachers’ right to strike and revisions of tenure procedures]. We got punished for not giving them money. The reason we hadn’t given them money was because the year before they came up with a really horrible pension bill.

In 2012, we had that same conversation. A lot of members asked, “Why are we giving the Democrats money?” Because when we didn’t, we got smooshed. You cannot put all your eggs in a legislative basket. The problem with business unionists is that they rely on having good relationships with legislators. But if you don’t have a mass movement behind you to move legislators, they don’t take you seriously.

Then our members say, “Well, why aren’t we suing [the Board of Education]?” OK, we have sued. But people watch too much TV. They don’t understand that lawsuits aren’t over in an hour or at the end of the show, when everybody walks away because they’ve been vindicated. Because the other side will keep fighting you.

So we started a case in 2010 after the school board illegally laid off our members, and we’re still fighting that case! It’s still in federal court three years later!

If you only go the legislative route and the legal route, you’re playing by somebody else’s rules. As [civil rights lawyer and Harvard law professor] Lani Guinier says, whoever makes the rules has an advantage. The legislative piece and the legal piece are out of our hands. But what we can control is our membership and having them active, having them involved, and having them push their legislators—but also having them take to the streets. And having the authorities understand that we will shut down your city. You will not be able to function without dealing with us fairly.

That’s the way it is right now in Chicago. In the past, when school-closing hearings would happen, ten or twelve people would show up. We’re now getting thousands of people to come to those hearings. And what they are saying with one voice is, “Keep your hands off my school.”

Another question Lani Guinier asks is, “What are the stories the winners tell the losers to keep them playing the game?” A lot of people don’t think about that. When you’re playing on somebody else’s turf, you don’t have control. So the key is to change the rules of the game.

The complete interview from which this edited excerpt is taken aired on April 22, 2013 on Dissent’s Belabored podcast, featuring hosts Josh Eidelson and Sarah Jaffe. Belabored is available both on iTunes and