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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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KAREN LEWIS: Yeah. We’ve never liked it, and we’ve never liked those programs. We found them to be extraordinarily destabilizing. And also, the idea of the market approach for public education, as far as we’re concerned, tramples on democracy. You know, public schools are the place where you get to learn about democracy, and it’s been trampled out. And Chicago has the potential for that. We have local school councils of elected parents and community members and staff who are supposed to choose principals, evaluate principals, look at how the discretionary funds are spent. And the local school councils in schools that are very high-functioning, the local school councils are also high-functioning. But in the schools that aren’t so much, you find those aren’t functioning as well, and it’s due to a lack of training and will.

AMY GOODMAN: And evaluating teachers according to these high-stakes tests?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, that is something that the law requires now, so it’s not like, you know, we had a choice around it. But what we didn’t like is that the mayor andCPS decided to pile on and add extra—

AMY GOODMAN: Chicago Public—

KAREN LEWIS: —extra things that were not in the law. So, I mean, and that’s part of what we see. There is like this whole thing about, "Oh, I’m tougher on my teachers than you are," you know, like it’s some kind of competition amongst the elite to have who’s the baddest person in the room. But, you know, my concern about all of this is that we care about kids because that’s the work we do. And this mayor has said he cares about students. I would like to hope that he does. I know that he cares about some of them. But 25 percent, he told me, were never going to be anything, never going to amount to anything, and he wasn’t going to waste money on them. So, if we decrease wages for everybody across the board, then we see that, and we see those lack—that lack of resources coming into play. All of this makes perfect sense when you understand what their calculus really is.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Lewis, you were a stand-up comic. Was there anything funny about this strike or what you see coming?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, I mean, I find humor in just about everything, to be perfectly honest with you. It’s how I get through the day. No, there have been some funny moments, but, by and large, this has been absolutely serious. I think the sea of red and the show of support—I mean, there’s something to be said when people are bootlegging your T-shirts, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the red T-shirts.


AMY GOODMAN: And they’re going to wear them back in the schools today.

KAREN LEWIS: Oh, yes. We told everybody, walk together. Meet each other in the parking lot and walk together as a union back into the buildings.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Lewis, I want to thank you for being with us. Karen Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union. She led the city’s first teachers’ strike in a quarter of a century and is part of the union’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, known as CORE. She was a teacher in the Chicago schools, a chemistry teacher at Martin Luther King High School on the South Side of Chicago. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the co-author of “The Silenced Majority,” a New York Times best-seller.

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