Karen Lewis Speaks at NEIU

Gary Soriano, Arts and Life Editor

Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis, an alumna of Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) who received a Master’s Degree in Inner City Studies at the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies campus was greeted with a standing room only crowd during her recent visit to NEIU’s main campus.
“We are inspired by her example, and her tenacity and eloquence,” American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 representative Linda Loew said. AFSCME, UPI Local 4100 and NEIU’s College of Education brought Lewis back to her alma mater to share her energy and wisdom with the students, teachers, faculty, paraprofessionals and other guests fortunate enough to find an open space in the LWH lecture room.
“We have all benefited from her work and her leadership,” President of the University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) Local 4100 and NEIU Professor Sophia Mihic said during her introduction of Lewis. Due to her leadership, “students don’t simply have a longer day, they have a better day.”
Lewis, a former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) high school chemistry teacher for 22 years, touched upon many issues afflicting the state of public education in the city. From charter schools, to CPS school closings, Rahm Emanuel, corporate interests, the future of teaching and more, the CTU president was not at a loss for words.
Lewis contends “the BOE are the biggest thugs and gangsters on this planet. They engage in illegal behavior on a regular basis and will continue to do so as long as no one complains.” Just two weeks before she took office on July 1 of 2010, the Board of Education (BOE) passed a resolution that, “because they had no money, they could lay off teachers outside of the seniority,” Lewis said.
According to Lewis, The Board of Education (BOE) is using “Orwellian double-speak.” Lewis says that experience doesn’t matter to the BOE, citing the 1,200 teachers, many with years of experience, “honorably terminated” in 2010.
The notion of doublespeak originates from George Orwell’s novel 1984. According to orwelltoday.com, the word means “saying one thing and meaning another, usually its opposite.”
An apparent dilemma was brought to the attention of the audience when Lewis contemplated on the idea that if teachers with no experience are educating the current youth of today, what does this mean for the next generation of youth that will be trained by those students who may subsequently become educators in the future?
“I’ve heard it so much,” Lewis said about the sentiment imparted by some of her colleagues that “there’s nothing we can do.”
NEIU undergraduate Daniel Williams refuses to give in to this attitude. He points to those he feels are responsible for this conflict- “the major corporations and wealthy elites, who close schools and open charters in order to create a low-wage workforce that will never have the skills to manage the world’s resources,” Williams said.
The Mayor
Known for her tenacious ways, Lewis pledged that she would try not to call Mayor Rahm Emanuel any names, but she did want to clarify a few of his statements. On Mayor Emanuel’s claim that Chicago had the shortest school day in the nation, “He lied,” Lewis said. “It didn’t even matter that it wasn’t true in the state of Illinois.”
Lewis attributes this “lie” to the notion that many people may require two salaries in order to maintain standards of living. So parents would likely need extra childcare for no extra charge. “It was a solution,” Lewis said. The mayor “went to Springfield to make sure it would happen. That was a debacle.”
Lewis stated that teachers did not oppose the idea of longer school days and neither did parents. But, she said, according to a teacher’s poll, parents who agreed to a longer school day also agreed that teachers should be financially compensated.
Lewis asserts that graduation rates are higher than they’ve ever been. “But why are we being beaten?” she asked. “It’s because there are no jobs for kids that don’t graduate. The same people that are telling us how wrong we are, how bad we are, are the ones shipping jobs to other places.”
Claims by the Board of Education, members which are all appointed by Mayor Emanuel, were also questioned. “Their favorite lie,” according to Lewis, is that CPS lost 145,000 students since 2000. However, the BOE used a census report from 2000-2010 that included “all children ages 0-19,” Lewis said. Later, Vice President of Chicago’s BOE Jesse Ruiz’s numbers showed that it was actually 36,000, not 145,000. “The numbers don’t add up,” Lewis said.
“They love data,” Lewis said. “But they don’t love it when you can pick it apart and show them the real numbers.”
Lewis said to consider child poverty rates which may owe to these drastic numbers that can be seen nationwide. According to pbs.org, the U.S. Census Bureau’s official poverty measure stated that roughly one in five children lived in poverty in 2011. About 20 percent of children in the U.S. live in poverty as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I’ve heard it so much,” Lewis said on how she feels on the hopelessness that the phrase “there’s nothing we can do” conveys.
On School Closings
It appears that the major issue among those concerned with public education is school closings due to underutilization.
The issue of school closings “has been going on for 12 years,” Lewis said. According to wbez.org, since April 10, 2002, CPS “has closed or completely re-staffed more than 100 schools.”
At first, the BOE claimed low-performance. However, according to Lewis, schools that were performing well were still forced to close. Currently, the argument by the BOE is underutilization. Yet Lewis maintains that “every classroom is being used.”
The CPS Board and the mayor claim the closings will save the district $560 million over 10 years, according to the Associated Press. Lewis, however, feels these school closings are still unjustified as this prediction is simply a “press release number.” The fact, according to Lewis, is that in eight of the last 10 years, there has been a budget deficit surplus. “But that didn’t make headlines,” Lewis said.
According to the Associated Press, these closings would take place at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year.
On Charter Schools
“Ms. Lewis is not afraid to speak truth to power, and I knew she would be bringing her powerful message about the corporate and elite attempts to dismantle public education in our country,” Williams said. Williams, a history and secondary education major and a product of the CPS system that he plans to teach for, claims “there are national foundations committed to destroying public education and promoting a race to the bottom for our society.”
According to dissentmagazine.org, when it comes to the funding of Charter schools in two of the nation’s largest cities (New York and Chicago), “three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation— working in sync, command the field.” “Stop shopping there,” Lewis said in reference to Wal-Mart, which is owned and controlled by the Walton family. These foundations, according to Lewis, are funding Charter schools and vouchers and buying school boards across the country. They are “finding how to close schools and make the community like it.”
Soon, Lewis said, BOE will be claiming that “an effective teacher can lead 60 people.”
Lewis doesn’t disagree with the idea of charter schools. “Parents should have a choice,” Lewis said. “But the choice shouldn’t be a chance. It should be a guarantee.” “Traditional public schools have to educate every student that walks in their door. Charters can refuse students.”
New Teachers
“I love teaching,” Lewis said. But the stuff they are asking teachers to do, according to Lewis, “is immoral, unethical and frankly dangerous.”
“How do you have a system that demoralizes the ones who are trying to teach them?” Lewis said.
“If you don’t teach to the test now you’ll lose your job,” Lewis said. “It’s hard. It’s not as fun as it used to be.” Lewis attests that no matter how many certifications teachers continue to obtain after their degree, it is “never going to be enough.”
To future educators, Lewis said, “You’re going to make some mistakes” but “the key is not to do it intentionally.”
“I’ve never lost the drive to make connections with my students,” Lewis said. “If I’m having fun, they’re having fun.”
“To teach is not to be passive. It’s an active and involved profession.”
What to do
“If people are doing things that are wrong, you have an obligation to speak against them,” Lewis said. “I know that our power is better when we are more and we stand as one.”
Lewis encourages those concerned to attend board meetings and call board members and give “relentless pressure. You cannot give up.”
According to Chicago Teachers Union Leader Martin Ritter, there are 150 board meetings on school closings that will take place around the city on evenings and weekends. To sign up for email alerts or learn more about the CTU, visit their website at ctunet.com.
CTU Local 101 represents 30,000 Chicago Public School teachers. UPI Local 4100 at NEIU represents between 500 and 600 faculty and academic professional on campus. AFSCME Council 31 and UPI Local 4100 both worked “to support the CTU in their struggle with the mayor and the school system in regards to safeguarding public education in Chicago,” AFSCME Council 31 President and University Archive Librarian Ellen Larrimore said.
On April 13, 10 a.m.–1 p.m., an informative meeting discussing how banks and big businesses get rich off of school closings will take place at United Electrical Workers Hall, 37 S. Ashland. All are welcome.


Correction:  “Karen Lewis Speaks at NEIU” article printed in our April 9th issue, Linda Loew works in enrollment services here at NEIU and is also an executive board member of AFSCME Local 1989. Ellen McMinn Larrimore is the president of AFSCME Local 1989 on campus.

We apologize for our previous error.