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Chicago: Karen Lewis Spoke to City Club Today

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Karen Lewis Speech to City Club Today

CTU President Karen Lewis releases new blueprint for
Chicago and the ‘soul’ of public education

CHICAGO – Before a sold-out audience of City Club of Chicago, today Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis unveiled a new plan to level the playing field for thousands of students and their families as the city inches closer to the municipal election. “A Just Chicago: Fighting for the City Our Students Deserve,” serves as a challenge to the status quo—Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, and others—to do what is morally just and protect the interest of working families, while fostering policies that eradicate poverty, inequality and racial injustice in our city and state.

The full “Just Chicago,” report can be found on the union’s website at The text of her City Club speech follows:

I cannot tell you how happy I am to be here with you today. It is always a pleasure to be among my good friends at the City Club of Chicago. I can also tell you it’s better to be seen than viewed.

And, for the last few weeks I’ve been sharing an old Jewish joke that I came across: It says…If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

I had a plan—or so I thought. I was planning on running for mayor; and in doing so I intended to lift the voices of the marginalized people in this city who remain ignored and overlooked by the current administration. That means I was planning on beating the incumbent to help restore justice, equity and democracy on the 5th Floor of City Hall. That also meant that if my mayoral motorcade was blowing through red lights, I was planning on digging deep into my purse to pay those fines.

Do I regret not being able to implement my plan? Regret is too strong a word. I have no regrets.

At least I made God laugh.

If anything, this experience has made me even more compassionate toward those who have greater challenges before them. Having a greater capacity for compassion will make me into a stronger leader, not just in my union, but also in my community and in my nation. While there were no bright lights and no visions of my 61 years flashing before my eyes, my health scare has done much to increase my focus. I have a renewed outlook.

I can also tell you that when the doctors presented us with the diagnosis, I didn’t worry about what would happen to me. I was more concerned about my husband, John, and what would happen to the tens of thousands of people across this city who are crying for new political leadership; the people who were building a movement for a more just Chicago; the same people who were counting on me to take on the mayor.

I’ve gotta say this. Can I say this? It was a little odd watching the news and seeing reporters speaking of me in past tense. I kept pinching myself—thinking, “I’m still here right? Is there something someone wants to tell me—because if this is the afterlife, it looks awfully like my dining room.”

So for me, this was just another challenge. Another fight even if this time it is very personal. And, you know I’ve been underestimated before. So even though I couldn’t run for mayor I knew it was not the end of the world—it was an unfortunate moment in our movement. All we had to do now was switch lanes.

That is why I asked Commissioner Garcia to mount a campaign for mayor. I knew Chuy would be able to fight for what our City deserves. For more than three decades he’s been in the forefront of strengthening neighborhoods. He is the leader with a keen understanding of the financial crisis looming in Chicago and yet he possesses the moral courage to make the really tough choice of not throwing poor people and working families under a CTA bus.

We just switched lanes. This is sort of a relay race—and I simply passed the baton to the better runner ahead of me.

That is also why I’m backing several people for City Council including members of the Progressive Caucus. I am also supporting everyday people who have the courage to stand up for what they believe, like David Moore in the 17th Ward; and teachers, clinicians and members of the Chicago Teachers Union like Tara Stamps in 37, Sue Sadlowski Garza in 10 and Tim Meegan in 33. People are tired of status quo aldermanic cheerleaders who are beholden to the mayor and his crazy “hedge fund homies.”

They are tired of being represented by people who agree with privatizing public assets; those stealing our pensions while they protect their own; those City Council members who think it’s okay to vilify hard working teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians. People are tired of City Council members who are complicit by their silence as the mayor’s hand-picked board closed 50 schools; complicit in their silence as the city engages in charter madness. People are tired of elected officials who think it okay to lie to the President of the United States about the length of our school day because they are desperate to win. I think it is a shame when the President goes on the radio to repeat a lie that Jonah Edelman already admitted (at the Aspen Institute) that this was something he made up and the mayor just took it and ran with it.

The longer school day myth is just as bad as the “STEM” myth being propagandized across the country. I’d like to know where are all of these vacancies that are going unfilled—when Microsoft lays off 18,000 workers, and high-tech companies continue to outsource to other countries. STEM is just another tactic of the ruling class to decrease wages in this protracted war on the middle-class.

You know, as I think of it: It is patently unfair that these people get to clamor for the heads of teachers —as they call for accountability by looking at high-stakes test scores—yet we can only hold these people accountable every four years. And who holds the venture capitalists responsible? Who has been held responsible for the foreclosure crisis that saw the greatest reduction of wealth among the middle class in our nation’s history? Who has been held accountable for the rampant pension thefts? For the destruction of American jobs? For the unjust murders of unarmed Black men?

Their education policies have been disastrous from New York to L.A. Their private-public partnership means PRIVATE: employees will be overworked and underpaid and living in constant fear of losing their jobs; and, PUBLIC: no jobs, attacks on pensions, benefits and health care. (I got a bill for $78,000. I have reasonable health care; what happens to the families who are one illness away from catastrophic disaster and financial ruin.) Something is wrong in our nation when the top 1 percent continue to siphon every resource available from the 99 percent trapped on the bottom rung. And sending kids to charter schools is not going to change that.

I guess this private-public crowd is happy now that one of their buddies was able to purchase a tenth house—the governor’s mansion in Springfield. Bruce Rauner ran on a platform about nothing. Yet, in the days of his taking the oath of office, the real Rauner is starting to emerge. He’s wasted no time attacking the wages of working-class people; attacking their labor unions; and threatening massive cuts to social service programs which help the most vulnerable people in our state. That is the real Bruce Rauner. He is not some easy-going-blue-jeans and $20-dollar-watch-wearing good guy who’s coming in to save the day.

He is Scott Walker on steroids. He is a person who has made it a mission to vilify the Chicago Teachers Union for no other reason than our opposition to the vicious attacks on our character, classrooms and students. We won’t apologize for standing up for what is right for our children. We will not ever be silent in the face of austerity.

This is a governor who has admitted that he is only interested in “the Strivers.” This means the Real Rauner thinks that only certain people are worthy of a high quality education. He does not believe that every child should have one—only those he deems “the Strivers.” This type of thinking will only further class divisions and increase conflicts.

The Real Rauner is also busy trying to make the term “collective bargaining” into dirty words.

If there is any silver lining, it is in the fact that no governor can rule by fiat. He’s going to have to learn to work with the General Assembly. He’s going to have to learn to listen to everyday citizens, that he spent nearly $30 million of his own money to represent. He’s going to have to learn to work with organized labor.

The Chicago Teachers Union is currently negotiating its new bargaining agreement. We’re in the early stages right now. We don’t know if the mayor’s handpicked Board of Education will make the same mistakes it made three years ago that sent 30,000 educators to the picket line. If they do, I assure you, we will be prepared. Ultimately, it is up to them. We met their threshold before—and we can meet it again.

There’s some guy in the Illinois General Assembly who got the bright idea to try to pass the same kind of threshold legislation, SB7 type of thing for districts throughout the rest of the state. Someone call him up and tell him not to do this. Tell him not to poke the bear. He shouldn’t do that to people who can read and do math.

Make no mistake about it—teachers and other school employees are demoralized because there are climates of fear in our schools. While we were able to win considerable gains in the last contract, other problems are crippling our district. Principals, covered by autonomy, are able to segregate their faculties. Lane Tech, where I taught chemistry, and my husband taught for 28 years, has not a single Black male teacher. Only one person on the staff is over the age of 40. Principals are enticed with a form of merit pay. This competition for coins leads them to create conditions in their buildings that are adverse to collaboration. Some principals are so far gone that they believe teachers should stand on their feet all day—no desk. No “random acts of teaching.”

They want “Stepford Teachers” and “Children of the Corn”—kids who are compliant and will not challenge authority or the system on eradicating inequality, poverty and injustice.

The district is focused on testing, testing, testing. We are boring children to death.

Testing does nothing but show you the educational attainment of the child’s mother. We don’t even get to see the test results. Why? What is the point of all of this testing? These tests are what they are using to ruin people’s lives–adults and children; and then they run around saying, “I’m for the kids.” We have been talking about a crisis in education since I was a baby. We continue to brand public education as a failure. Why are we telling these lies?

In the coming days we will present our contract demands and what type of investment the Board will make to ensure every child has a world-class education. If you want well-resourced schools, educators with tenure and job security it is going to cost money. We shouldn’t shy away from this. Great working conditions for educators are also great learning conditions for our students.

Our new contract will reflect our values as educators. The election is about the same values. We stand in solidarity with every parent in calling for more resources; with every LSC leader who champions the cause of true education; with every activist working to strengthen their communities, despite rampant disinvestment and political meddling. The movement we have started in Chicago will intensify and expand. That is why today we are releasing our blueprint —“A Just Chicago: Fighting for the City our Students Deserve.”

In the area of employment, a just Chicago would:

eliminate employment discrimination, guarantee jobs that pay a living wage, and provide health insurance for families of Chicago’s students
offer racially and economically integrated schools with vibrant curricula for all students
In the area of justice, a just Chicago would:

end discrimination in arrests and sentencing and provide alternatives to imprisonment for non-violent offenders
treat first-time, non-violent drug offenders instead of jailing them
provide troubled students with additional counselors, social support services, and programs that implement restorative justice practices in the schools
make available mentoring programs, summer jobs, and school based mental health clinics to help address the impact of neighborhood violence
have a democratically elected, representative civilian police review board
In the area of housing, a just Chicago would:

address the affordable housing and crisis of Students in Temporary Living Situations
greatly increase the numbers of affordable and homeless housing units built across the city, including in wealthier and highly resourced neighborhoods
create affordable rental housing, regularly inspected for building code violations, with decreased numbers of evictions
In the area of health, a just Chicago would:

provide trauma centers, urgent care clinics, mental health clinics and other needed health care centers in all neighborhoods, particularly those currently lacking health services
rebuild the diminished lead poisoning prevention programs, increase the number of school-based health clinics and increase the staffing levels of nurses, social workers, and other school clinicians
In the area of education, a just Chicago would:

insist on equitable funding policies, including taxes on financial transactions and reduced dependence on property taxes
provide full day, developmentally appropriate pre-kindergarten to all who wanted it, but not use pre-K to enrich financial companies with public money
guarantee full funding for every school, and
have an democratically elected, representative school board.
This is what we want on February 24. This is what we want in our contract.

Thank you again. And, a special thanks to my husband John, who has been my rock through this ordeal, to CTU officers Jesse, Michael and Kristine for their friendship and leadership during this transition period; and Audrey, my executive assistant, CTU’s communications director Stephanie Gadlin and all of the exceptional staff at the Chicago Teachers Union for their hard work, dedication, leadership and support.

Thank you.

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