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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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AMY GOODMAN: Actually, on the issue of accountability, before the vote to suspend the teachers’ strike, Mayor Emanuel spoke about the need to hold teachers and principals accountable. Let’s go to that clip.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: I want people to understand, this is a crux of whether we’re going to make any improvements in our education of our children and create a culture where people are held accountable for the results. And these principals, like the others who signed the letter, are being clear that one of the goals they want to—they chose this. They want to be held accountable. They expect to produce results. To do that, they have to be able to also choose that the teachers that work in the building—third grade, fifth grade, what class it is—these individuals are trained. Some of them are former teachers, now principals, as in Dr. Hines’s case. And it’s a key issue about which direction we’re going to take and whether we’re going to have a school system built for accountability that holds our principals accountable—in the schools, rather than downtown, making the choice.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Karen Lewis, your response?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, I mean, the whole accountability movement is a disguise for pushing forth another agenda. Here’s the problem with the so-called principal accountability and flexibility. In Chicago, the shelf life of a principal is about four-and-a-half years. So, the question to us is, are we going to just have a lot of turn, every four years or so? Now, that means—that’s the average, so we have less than that on some ends. The days when the principal was in the school for a significant period of time, knew families, understood the neighborhood, those days are over. So, what they’re doing is turning through principals, and then they also want to turn faculty through that, too. So there are some schools where you have absolutely no veteran staff and nobody in the middle part of their career, but they have brand new teachers. So second-year teachers are mentoring first-year teachers. That is a plan for disaster, quite frankly.

So, you know, a lot of the whole—we want to know who is accountable for destroying neighborhoods? Who is held accountable for the lack of stability throughout the city that has all of these other implications? So, the whole accountability movement is just geared in one direction. So, where is the accountability upwards? Who loses their jobs for the hot mess they create for the rest of us?

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, have other teachers’ unions around the country been calling you?

KAREN LEWIS: Absolutely. They’ve not only been calling us, they’ve been sending us letters of support. They’ve been sending us, actually, money. Local 2, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, sent us $10,000, I mean, for our solidarity fund. It’s just been amazing. Boston took out an ad refuting Rahm Emanuel’s, you know, "Oh, why can’t we just settle like Boston did?" I mean, it was just a really wonderful outpouring of support—

AMY GOODMAN: But are they going to—

KAREN LEWIS: —not just from the country—

AMY GOODMAN: Are they turning to you for what they can do in their cities, like around issues of what’s called merit pay?

KAREN LEWIS: We haven’t talked about it yet, but I’m sure those conversations are going to get started, because I think we have changed the conversation in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of school reform nationally and what even that term "school reform" means? The person who is hailing this is Arne Duncan from—former head of the schools here, now secretary of education, the whole Race to the Top, as they call it.

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