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CTU chief Karen Lewis rips ‘corporate meddling’ in schools

Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis. File Photo. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. File Photo. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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An emotional Karen Lewis, the feisty president of the Chicago Teachers Union, denounced many school reforms as “corporate meddling,” Tuesday and told civic and business leaders not to discount poverty in how Chicago’s children learn.

Corporate educational reform in Chicago is a failure, she told the lunch crowd at the City Club of Chicago, drawing a distinction between job training and education.

“The business community will always be involved, because they have what they want: They want trained people to do their work,” she said. “But I’m here to tell you there’s a difference between training and education, and if we’re going to be training, then let’s just call it that and be done with it . . .

“Because education is what makes your life wonderful, it is what makes your life worth living if you come from neighborhoods that have been sorely neglected by the same people who all of a sudden love poor black and brown children but for some reason hate their parents,” Lewis said, jabbing at city leaders: “Oh I’m saying it, yes I did, yes I did.”

Laying out her vision for Chicago Public Schools, which recently emerged from a teachers strike and now is talking about closing school buildings, Lewis asked for an honest conversation about poverty and race in public education.

“We don’t like having those conversations because they make us uncomfortable, but until we do, we will be mired in the ‘no-excuses-mentality, poverty doesn’t matter,’ ” she said, referring to terms adopted by school reformers.

“Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who you know are distracted by their lives. Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who have seen trauma that none of this room can imagine,” she said.

CPS has fewer than 500 social workers and 300 nurses for 405,000 children, Lewis said.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who has appointed an independent commission to hear community concerns before choosing schools to close or consolidate, said in a statement, “As a lifelong educator, I share Ms. Lewis’ frustration.

“We too believe that every school be a safe, clean learning environment with air conditioning and critical supports like nurses and counselors. The status quo in our system today will not allow us to reach that goal, especially as we face a $1 billion deficit. We need to make difficult choices, including right-sizing a district that has too many empty classrooms and too few students. We need to redirect and invest dollars so that all our children can access the resources they need to be successful.”

In a rare moment for the boisterous union leader, Lewis cried after telling a story of presenting a science game she had invented to teachers, only to lament their response:

“Every last one of them talked about assessment, assessment, assessment, not the critical-thinking skills, not the ability to predict and not the ability to find the job of learning that those of us went to school years ago are the beneficiaries of,” she said, crying. “This is wrong, this borders on child abuse and it has to stop.”

The district’s emphasis on testing — in evaluating its teachers, in determining which schools to turn over to outside operators or shut down entirely — puts too much pressure on children and demoralizes teachers, she said.

As for corporate patrons who want to write checks toward improving city schools?

“I don’t think they should sit on the sidelines. I think they should do what they do when they give to the Lyric Opera,” Lewis said.

“They don’t go to the Lyric Opera, give money and then tell the singers how to sing. Give your money and walk away, buddies,” she said.

“I know I’m giving corporate leaders the blues but since you all brought me here, oh well,” she said at one point, whispering over the laughter, “Gotta be me.”

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