I never heard of Karen Lewis until she was elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union as an upstart in September 2010, overturning the established leadership. I was intrigued and decided that I wanted to meet this woman. As it happened, I had a speaking engagement in Detroit in late September and was supposed to fly from Detroit to Los Angeles.
When i visited Chicago in the spring of 2010 to speak at DePaul and the University of Illinois, my host was Mike Klonsky, who seemed to know everyone. I met him through Deborah Meier, my former blogging partner at Education Week. For me, the fallen-away conservative, it was a trip getting to know Mike, because he had long ago been a leader of the SDS, which was a radical group in the 1960s that i did not admire. So meeting him and discovering that he and his wife Susan were thoughtful, caring, and kind people was an experience in itself.
I mention Mike because when I wanted to meet Karen in September, I asked Mike to put us in touch, which he did. She agreed to meet me at the Chicago airport, where I would stop on my way from Detroit to L.A.
In an email exchange, I told her that I would make a 90-minute layover so we would have time to talk. “Oh, no,” she said, “that’s not enough time.” So I arranged a four-hour layover. When I landed in Chicago, Karen and her husband John were there to meet me. We drove to a hotel in the airport complex, where we had breakfast, then went to an empty meeting hall to talk.
We talked and talked and talked. I brought her my book as a present, and she whipped out her own copy, which was underlined in many places.
She told me about herself, her childhood, her education, her life as a teacher, why she ran for union president, what she hoped to achieve. I told her about my life, my childhood, my transition away from the think tank world of the right. She was right. We needed four hours. When we parted, there were hugs all around, and I had a new and close friend.
Since that time, I have stayed in close contact with Karen.
There are so many things that impress me about Karen. She understands what good education is and she knows that the children of Chicago are not getting it because of endless budget cuts and a Mayor and Board of Education who show by their actions that they don’t care about the children in the public schools for which they are responsible.
Karen told me that in her first meeting with Rahm Emanuel, he said that 25% of the kids in the Chicago public schools were uneducable. She rightly took offense, and it has been warfare between them ever since.
Karen understands that Rahm wants to privatize the schools by closing as many public schools as possible and handing off the children to private managers of charters.
Karen understands that the hedge fund managers and billionaire philanthropists promoting privatization are destroying public education while claiming to “save” poor children. I was reminded of her words last fall when I was at a small private dinner in Chicago with the city’s leading supporter of charter schools, who is a major equity investor. As we debated charters, I told him that the charters were skimming the most able children and leaving behind those they didn’t want. He defended the practice of skimming and excluding. He said he didn’t care; he wants to provide good schools for the most able; the others are not his responsibility, not his problem. He also doesn’t care if he destroys public education so long as he can “save” those few enrolled in charters.
One advantage that Karen has in dealing with the big shots in Chicago is that she graduated from Dartmouth. They can’t intimidate her with their Ivy League background. She can say to them, “Listen, buster, I wore the green jacket too.” The green blazer is a Dartmouth tradition. Karen was the first African American woman to graduate from Dartmouth.
I respect Karen Lewis. She is a woman of integrity and courage. She cares deeply about children and wants each and very one of them to have a good education and have a decent chance to have a good life.
I admire Karen Lewis. She hates hypocrisy, lies, deception, and cant.
Right now is a terrible time for the children of Chicago. They are at the mercy of powerful people who make decisions that hurt the children and shatter their communities. They are lucky to have Karen Lewis fighting for them.
I am proud to call Karen Lewis my friend.