Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spotlight: Karen Lewis Candidate for President of Chicago Teachers Union

Fifth in a Series of Political Newcomers/Challengers to Illinois Politics

Karen Lewis has found herself in a hot run-off race for President of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Lewis belongs to the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE). “CORE had no intention of running,” says Lewis, “we came together to push the union to do the right thing. We saw a ‘tepid response’ to the members. I thought that [protecting jobs] was the whole point of all unions.” Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart, of the UPC party, will face her in a run-off election on June 11th.

Lewis is a chemistry teacher at Martin Luther King College Prep on the city’s south side. She attended Reavis and Kozminski elementary schools. She left Kenwood after her junior year to attend Mount Holyoke College and transferred to Dartmouth when it went coed. Karen Lewis is the only black woman in Dartmouth’s class of 1974. She has a Master's degree in Inner City Studies Education. She also holds a second Master's of Fine Arts degree in Film & Video. She is Nationally Board Certified. Both of her parents were CPS teachers. Her husband is now retired from CPS. “So Chicago public schooling is in my blood,” she says.

“They call me a rookie,” she says referring to her opponents in the race. Lewis, however, was a teacher’s delegate for the union while at Lane Tech High School, Chicago’s largest high school. She taught at Lane for 15 years. She is still a delegate at Martin Luther King College Prep. Lewis was also appointed by CTU President Marilyn Stewart to the State Teacher’s Certification Board in August 2009; she is one of three members. As a background, the State Teacher’s Certification Board consists of 5 teachers from the Illinois Education Association, 5 from the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and 3 appointed by the CTU president. There are also professors and deans from various colleges and universities and representatives from superintendents and Chicago Public Schools. “I love school and I love to learn. I have 150 kids [at Martin Luther King College Prep] who I love and respect”, she says.

Nearly 20,000 of the 26,000 members eligible voted. According to a Sun Times article Union guidelines require that a candidate must win with 50 percent plus 1vote in order to avoid a run-off election. Deborah Lynch was also a candidate but did not win this time around. Lynch is chairman of the ProActive Chicago Teachers Caucus (PACT). She has spoken to Ms. Lewis and, on behalf of herself and her caucus, has thrown her support to Ms. Lewis. PACT is supportive in making the Union strong and in being more responsive to union members. PACT especially supports Lewis' commitment not to re-open the CTU contract, to protect the pension fund, to fight school closings and to restore transparency and democracy in the CTU.

Karen Lewis stated after Election Day “What this election shows us is that teachers and paraprofessionals are fed up. CORE’s success is we are a big-tent, grass-roots group led democratically from the bottom up. That was why CORE began in the first place – to activate and energize all members in running the Union.”

A Rally Hidden in Obscurity
Ron Huberman, Chicago Board of Education’s CEO, has warned that CPS will need union concessions to plug a $600 million deficit. He has proposed up to 2,700 teachers and union members could be out of a job if class sizes rise from an average of 30 to 35. On the afternoon of May 25, 2010 the CTU, CORE, PACT, and students and parents organized a massive rally with over 5,000 people in attendance. Originally decided on at an early May CTU meeting, the rally received little coverage by the media, despite being so large that it closed down Clark Street. According to , CORE members refuse to accept the fuzzy math, nor the layoffs and class size increases proposed by Ron Huberman. Lewis saw the rally as a great success, though she was disappointed by CTU President Stewart’s last minute cancellation of a scheduled press conference at city hall that afternoon. Many attendees were also disappointed later that evening to find little if any coverage of their organizing efforts on the evening news.

Union Busters and Pinochet’s Chile
On Sept. 11, 1973, the four branches of Chile's armed forces overthrew the government of Salvador Allende in a violent coup. The coup continued to victimize sectors of the Chile, especially the labor unions. Unions received the fiercest repression.
In April of this year Florida Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the most far-reaching education bill of its kind ; legislation that would have made it easier to fire teachers. This legislation also proposed paying teachers according to student test scores. Though Crist once favored the legislation and still supports the idea of performance based pay, he began having second thoughts about how the bill would achieve those goals. According to a Business Week report “when a friend back home in St. Petersburg called him and questioned how his special needs child could be fairly tested. ‘It touched my heart, frankly,’” Crist explained, "his son's teacher came to him and was crying about how she might be evaluated." Lewis explains, “We are not in control of a child’s environment at home or their level of poverty. Standardized testing says we care more about a kid’s zip code than the kid.” She goes on to explain that through standardized testing “we know more about their parents and if they went to college.” CORE proposes a ban to using test results to punish, label or denigrate schools, students or teachers.
After school hours are extraordinarily important. Lewis believes that CPS should not be getting rid of art and music programs. “Our children have very little recess time until after the ISAT tests are over. It’s like they are in lock down,” she explains. CORE supports full funding of technology, art, music, World languages, physical education and electives for all students.

“We have teacher’s who are with their kids all day from breakfast through lunch and then to the end of school,” she says. Teachers have little if no time to brainstorm with other professionals during the school day. “CPS is trying to do education on the cheap,” she says. This isolation is a tactic that Lewis believes is meant to bust the union.

Race to the Top
Lewis believes part of the problem with the school system is the belief that it ought to be based on a “CEO model”. “We have had many CEO’s: Paul Vallas, Arne Dunkin and now Ron Huberman,” she says, “these people do not have a clue about what goes on this side of the desk.” Lewis believes that the CEO model results in punishment and the militarization of the schools. “It is failing miserably,” she says. In regards to Charter schools, she believes that the charter schools do no better when they are dealing with the same kids. Lewis also notes the disparity between schools and the resources that they have to offer. “Some schools have little technology, no air conditioning while others have state of the art equipment,” she says. There is an inequality in school funding yet all children are held to the same standardized tests. Many times in working together with the parents teachers discover the realities of home life for students and the struggles that they carry with them on a daily basis. Divorce is a major issue which affects a student’s life, and sometimes is overlooked as a major factor in student learning. “But if you think divorce is an issue, imagine working with a student who has seen their own parent murdered,” she explains referring to a recent event in which a kindergarten student witnessed his parent gunned down. “We don’t have a psychologist or social worker at every school every day to help these children deal with their life stresses. They say it costs too much,” she says. Lewis wonders if these kids are not given social services outside of school to help them move on from a traumatic life situation, how will the child focus and learn. She goes on to criticize “They give the same test to this kid who has witnessed his father murdered as they give to the kid who comes from a healthy home where the parents are together. They will test these two kids with the same measurement!” Lewis supports the full funding of counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and special needs staff needed to support students.
Lewis also criticizes the White House’s efforts to impact education in an urban city such as Chicago. “Race To The Top is Obama's No Child Left Behind on steroids, “ she explains, “It's misguided and forces states to compete for money that will only be available for a short period of time but REQUIRES states to enact laws that tie teacher pay/evaluations/tenure decisions to test scores.” The business model regime is destroying the passion and the joy of teaching and learning. Lewis says teachers are seeing more and more young kids saying that they hate school. “School has become mind-numbing, “ she explains. To CORE and Lewis the CEO/Race to the Top model is not the answer. “It is about winners and losers; a race to the top. In this country we can’t have that,” she says.

“We are being eaten alive in Springfield,” says Lewis asking “ What are the lobbyists doing?” Lewis believes it is unconscionable that there even was a voucher bill (sponsored by Rev. Meeks) being debated. “The fact that there was also a Diabetes bill proposing to allow any school staffer to administer diabetes shots at school is also unconscionable,” she says.

There is a pension raid. “We are giving legislatures money every year. We have five paid lobbyists. Occasionally we get a report from them. We are given very little background or information on what they are doing on our behalf,” she says regarding the lack of lobbyist’s accountability to the union members. Lewis believes that every single teacher should know how to track a bill. Bills should be on the CTU website. “We also need to initiate bills,” she explains, “and our union is not doing that.” Lewis also believes that more focus should be given to equitable funding for schools. “We need an elected school board, because what we have now is not democratic, “ she says. CORE proposes the repeal of mayoral control of schools and the restoration of teacher’s right to collectively bargain class sizes, counselor loads and stop school closings and reconstitutions. Lewis says teachers get a lot of directives and little information from the CTU. “So many teachers are apathetic because they have little information on many different issues, “ she explains, “ When CORE came we caught the ear of the teachers.” CORE proposes to restore democratic practices to the House of Delegates. CORE also supports the idea of publicly-available video/print transcripts to hold delegates and leadership accountable. “Send field reps to the schools, not to the Mart,” is one CORE initiative referring to the Merchandise Mart, location of the CTU offices.

In regards to the past several years, Lewis has noticed a great decline in union pride. “We told the union that they are making decisions that have tremendous impact on an entire community, and [they make these decisions] without even coming to public hearings.” Lewis says that last year the union was not coming to public hearings. “CORE attended every budget meeting, every school closing meeting and every new opening for charter schools,“ she says. Because of that involvement, six schools were removed from the school closing list. “That has never happened before.“ says Lewis explaining, “The union took note of this and the board took notice as well.” This year they both started attending the public hearings and school closing hearings and they acknowledged what they had not done in the past. As a result, Ron Huberman decided that the idea of announcing school closings in January was not a good one.

CORE invited the union to their grass-roots educational, or GEM, partnership meetings. The Grassroots Education Movement involves community organization such as “KOCO” or Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, the Pilsen Alliance, Blocks Together, Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), Chicago Youth In Charge, Gender Justice, just to name a few. CTU came to a meeting that CORE held on how to organize a school closing. Since then they have not attended another meeting. There has been no working relationship since.

Lewis believes it is imperative to address the budget mess. We need to start training our delegates to do real mobilization. They need training not only in contracts and employee discipline codes but also working with delegates to work with their colleagues too, “ she says. CORE supports leading legislation to fund all schools equitably and return all TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funds to each school taxing district. CORE recently sued the union for not releasing the budget figures. Lisa Madigan, Attorney General for Illinios, also mandated that the union comply to CORE’s freedom of information request. This issue is still in court. To date the budget has not been released to CORE.

Lewis believes strongly that parents should feel welcomed inside a school building. Parents should be working with teachers and paraprofessionals on a regular basis. “Here at Martin Luther King College Prep I have died and gone to ‘teacher heaven’,“ she says. Principal Wright and Lewis’ colleagues and parents are all very supportive. “I always ask parents ‘what can we do together to help your child’,” she says. Lewis believes strongly in the CORE effort to be all inclusive with teachers, paraprofessionals, community organizations, and parents. She says this “makes the students the ultimate winners.”

On June 11th Chicago teachers will have their say in which direction they would like their union, their profession and their school day to go. In union meetings Lewis complains “we no longer have that ‘family feeling’; brother and sister.” In an interview Lewis once said, “CORE invites all caucuses and Union members to join us to reinvigorate rank-and-file members and wake up the sleeping giant that is the Chicago Teachers Union.”

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