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Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis: "Victory for Education" Comes from Strike

Chicago public school students returned to class Wednesday after the governing body of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to suspend its nine-day strike, the first teachers’ strike in Chicago since 1987.

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So our main focus is trying to make education better, because we feel like we can solve some of the problems. The longer school day was a hot, buttery mess until we sat down with them and said, "OK, look, you can’t afford to pay us this entire length of day, because the arbitrator told you that, so here’s a way to figure this out by staffing up so that you can save some money." We actually brought that to the board, because they were clueless. They were absolutely clueless in trying to figure out the problem. We’re teachers. We’re problem solvers. And for—Bruce Rauner has to remember, I’m two years out of the classroom, so, for me, not a bureaucratic union hack. Sorry, that tag just won’t hang on us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that, your background, chemistry teacher at Martin Luther King High here in Chicago, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. Explain what CORE is and where you came from.

KAREN LEWIS: Right. Well, we were sitting around a table, literally, eight of us, reading about the school closings in Chicago and understanding that this was basically a real-estate plan—and it still is, by the way—and not an educational plan. So, we were trying to figure out how do we actually use our voices to attack that? We read—we did book clubs, literally. We started as a book club. We readShock Doctrine.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein’s book.

KAREN LEWIS: Yeah, Naomi Klein’s book, which was very helpful to us to kind of put in perspective what these people were doing and how they amassed this power over the last 30 years. And then, all of this started in Chicago at the business school, right? So we started just trying to take off small bites of the apple by going to the school closing hearings, demanding that the Board of Education come to these hearings. They weren’t. And again, we have an appointed mayoral-controlled board. They’re not accountable to anyone. And they’re certainly not accountable to the community.

When the community would come and beg for their schools, this is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Children, teachers—and not so much teachers at first, but parents and community members begged for their schools. And that fell on deaf ears. So people felt completely unempowered, that if a decision was made, it was made, and there was nothing you could do about it.

Well, in the first year we started this, we got six schools taken off the hit list. That had never happened before. We changed the way the Board of Ed did things. The board members actually came to the schools. And we said, "You should at least come to the schools you’re going to close and look these people in the eye and explain to them why." And that had never happened.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens when a school closes? Where do the kids go?

KAREN LEWIS: It depends, you know. A lot of times the kids will go to another school, or some just get lost in the shuffle. I mean, none of this stuff had been taken into consideration. They had no plans for closing a school and doing anything appropriately for the children. They had no plans of bringing the faculties of the two schools together to have some conversation so there’s some continuity of instruction for children. But none of that, and no safety plan. So, you know, Chicago is a pretty dangerous place, as you may have heard, and this—absolutely no plan for how are we going to get kids safely through different territories. None of that was ever—and when we bring this up and we beg them, "Don’t do this. It’s a mistake," and they just absolutely ignored the community. And this year, there were parents from more affluent communities that got ignored. So, I mean, there was this whole kind of feeling of the Board of Education is completely unaccountable. There’s something wrong with this.

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