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Karen Lewis needs to start putting out the teachers union fire

Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis fires up crowd UniPark during teachers strike September 2012.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis fires up the crowd at Union Park during the teachers strike in September 2012.

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Updated: October 19, 2012 6:18AM



Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has created a monster.

Soothing that monster won’t be easy.

Indeed, Lewis’ rhetoric that Chicago Public Schools can’t be trusted worked too well. Now teachers don’t know a good deal when they see one.

Instead of breaking into a victory song when the CPS caved and gave up on many of its accountability demands, the union’s House of Delegates opted to drag the strike out a couple of more days.

On Monday, a fed-up Mayor Rahm Emanuel went to court to force teachers to return to the classroom. His effort — clearly a day late and dollar short — turned out to be all bluster when a Cook County Circuit Court judge failed to issue an immediate temporary restraining order.

Frankly, for the mayor to portray the 6-day-old strike illegal at this point seems more like face-saving than leadership.

“The mayor is just mad. This African-American woman was able to run circles around him,” said a 19-year veteran teacher who asked for anonymity.

No matter what side you are on, I think most people would agree if the union chief — and she’s a tough cookie — thought the proposed contract language was acceptable, that should have been enough to walk teachers back into the classroom.

Aspects of the proposed deal, brokered after months of negotiations and the first school strike in 25 years, gave CTU a lot of what it was fighting for, including some job security for laid-off teachers and the opportunity for jobs for some teachers in the event their schools are subject to closings, turnarounds and phase-outs. CTU also defeated merit pay and forced CPS to return schools to the same calendar.

The proposed contract also puts in language that protects teachers from “bullying by principals and managerial personnel.”

The latter point alone should have been enough to have teachers doing the happy dance.

But Lewis couldn’t seal the deal.

“Please write ‘trust’ in big giant letters because that’s what the problem is,” the union chief told reporters after announcing the strike wasn’t over.

But that apparently was the union’s strategy.

And because the conflicts between CTU and CPS were often framed in racial terms, the two sides have a long, long way to go before they get to trust.

Last February, CTU filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging the Board of Education’s teacher layoffs unfairly impacted African-American teachers.

African-American teachers make up 29 percent of all CPS teachers but were 43 percent of those laid off last year, while white teachers were 47 percent of the total and 36 percent of the layoffs, according to the CTU.

Last school year, black students made up 41.6 percent of the district’s students; white students were just 8.8 percent of the total.

During the debate over school closings a month later, Lewis joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson in denouncing the school board’s decision to close 17 underperforming or turnaround schools as “education apartheid.”

At the time, Emanuel dismissed the complaints as “noise around change,” adding that for him, the worst discrimination was leaving kids in failing schools.

Now he knows better.

The worst discrimination is that most of CPS kids have been locked out of schools with few options. Some of them could go to grandma’s house or to other relatives. Others had to be supervised by older siblings, and many more became instant latchkey kids.

As lawyers pointed out in the complaint, this school strike is affecting 355,000 CPS students. Because of the large number of students entitled to free or reduced lunch, the system is “facing massive food spoilage and the loss of approximately $1.25 million per day in USDA funding.”

Additionally, for too many of the city’s children, school is a safe haven — not only from the negative influences in their neighborhoods but from the negative goings-on in their homes.

Obviously two more days out of the classroom isn’t likely to ruin lives. But this school strike is only partially about the fine print.

For months, teachers have been told they have been “belittled, betrayed, bullied” by the school board and the mayor’s administration. Of course, they aren’t happy to end up with a 3 percent raise in the first year and a longer school day.

But for union delegates to refuse to suspend the strike makes the union chief look like she’s not leading.

After all, it was on Lewis to put out the fire and let healing begin.



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