Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Leader Share Faith — But Little Else

Firebrand African-American Convert Is Thorn in Mayor's Side

By Menachem Wecker

Published September 10, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
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In an August 28 phone interview with the Forward, Lewis, who was elected as CTU president in 2010, the year before Emanuel took office, said she thinks that she and the mayor actually share a lot in common. But the two have never discussed Jewish approaches to education. “I’ve only had two conversations with him, and those were over two years ago,” she said.

The last of those conversations — the one that allegedly featured Emanuel’s explosive curse-out of Lewis — capped what the union leader sees as a trail of abuses suffered by rank-and-file teachers, who are being blamed for broader systemic failures. This includes a unilateral decision by the Emanuel-appointed school board to rescind the 4% raises that teachers were scheduled to receive, and a bill Emanuel helped ram through the state legislature that stripped senior teachers of protections against firing. The state bill also enabled Emanuel to unilaterally lengthen Chicago’s notably short school day and linked teacher tenure to performance reviews. Lewis believes those reviews fail to take into sufficient account problems such as poverty, violence and malnutrition in many of the low-performing schools.

Above and beyond this, Emanuel has made clear his determination to make Chicago a center for the sort of school reforms being pushed by moneyed reformers such as Bill Gates and Pritzker, whom Emanuel appointed to the city’s school board soon after taking office. Those reforms emphasize closing low-performing public schools and expanding the role of non-union charter schools which, unlike the public schools they are competing with, are not required to serve children who don’t speak English or who have behavioral problems.

For all this, no one argues that Chicago schools do not need some radical reforms. By summer 2013, nearly 35% of Chicago’s public high-school students failed to graduate within five years, according to a CPS release (though this was down from 40% just two years earlier) and students’ ACT scores averaged a low 17.62 (that’s out of 36 points; many colleges look for a score in the low 20s at least). Some critics also saw Emanuel’s rescinding of teacher wages as more than justified by the huge deficits and unfunded pension obligations faced by the city.

Still, questions persist as to whether the push for non-union charter schools offers a real answer. Chicago currently has 119 charter schools with plans for many more in the coming years. But a 2009 analysis by the Chicago Tribune showed that standardized test scores at a raft of new specialized schools and charter schools opened by the city since 2001 under its “Renaissance 2010” program were nearly identical to the overall average at Chicago public schools. At the Renaissance 2010 high schools, the scores were below the average.

Emanuel’s office failed to respond to multiple requests for comment about his relationship with Lewis, left via email and phone. But the clash between the 60-year-old union leader and 53-year-old mayor over how Chicago’s public schools ought to be run has transfixed this city, where politics is played as a contact sport. Last September, Lewis led a strike, which shut down the nation’s third-largest public school system, after the union and the mayor’s office couldn’t reach an agreement on areas such as teacher evaluation. The strike, Chicago’s first since 1987, temporarily displaced about 350,000 students and lasted longer than a week.

Sophie Leff, a senior and classmate of Glockner’s at Northside College Prep, was one of those students. In an op-ed on the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs’ website last September, Leff described picketing her school with teachers and classmates as “an inspirational and moving experience that at several points nearly brought me to tears.”

In an interview with the Forward, Leff said Lewis has faced “a lot of backlash” not only because she is a powerful woman, but also “a very loud, very outspoken, and very abrasive woman in a position of power.” Lewis also “doesn’t present very well,” Leff said. “I wonder if she looked like Ann Coulter, would the reaction to her be different?”

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