Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis gave a great interview to “Belabored,” a new podcast connected with the left-wing magazine Dissent. Lewis is always provocative and unfiltered, but in this half-hour conversation, she discusses the school closing issue in more depth than you see on television. (The interview starts at the 15-minute point.) Here are the highlights.
On why school closings are bad for students:
I think the school closures are a symptom of a really bad school policy that we in Chicago have been struggling with for over ten years. When “No Child Left Behind” came around, they said if a school’s struggling we’re going to close it down. It’s bad. As if the building makes something bad. What’s happened is, as schools close, they destabilize other schools that are nearby. So there’s this domino effect that of course they never took into consideration: the notion that children are in failing schools, and they can go somewhere else and do better. What we have found is that when children go to new schools, they don’t do better, and in fact, they lose from three to six months on their learning, or at least on their testing.
On how the Chicago Public Schools leadership hasn’t taken into account how school closings will affect gang rivalries and neighborhoods:
They want to up the ante and close 80 of these schools, or 50, or 37. Chicago has a very different gang structure than most other cities with gangs: there’s no hierarchy. So you may be nominally a Gangster Disciple, and you may be nominally a Vice Lord. In Chicago, the Gangster Disciples are fighting amongst themselves. This block may be fighting against the other block. We have little fiefdoms. They’re not defending drug territory. They’re defending respect, because our children have so little of it. When somebody disrespects them, it escalates outrageously…in Chicago, we have situations of safety that are absolutely out of control. We have this murder rate that I cannot begin to tell you how embarrassing it is, and for us to pay attention to one young woman who was murdered. She went to the inauguration. She actually went to the school where I taught before I left teaching. I knew one of the people involved…Our children have to walk from their neighborhoods, they know the culture, they know where the safe streets are, going to another school, where they may not have the same culture. One of the things I keep trying to explain to people is in Chicago, we’ve got a lot of Capulets and Montagus. It’s going to take a while to do this process right. They want to rush it and close a boatload of schools.
It affects nine out of ten black schools. In Chicago, we have intensely segregated schools. In Chicago, we have what are called apartheid schools, in which 99 percent of students are black. Forty-five percent of the apartheid schools are on this list.
On why the Chicago Teachers Union will take to the streets to prevent school closings:
This is the part that’s most difficult for me is politics, because I hate politics. For a long time, I’ve felt we live in a one-party system. We just have two branches of it. Hearing people call Obama a socialist makes me want to fall out laughing. I would like to see a whole new party, clearly, that speaks for working people. The way our system is set up, it’s very difficult to have those good conversations about third parties. In 2010, the teachers’ unions in Illinois decided not to give to the Democratic Party. That’s how Jonah Edelman was able to come in and expand on children and give them a whole lot of money. So we got Senate Bill 7. We got punished for not giving them money. The reason we didn’t give them money is they came up the year before with a really horrible pension bill…If you don’t have mass movement behind you to move legislators, they will not respond to you…What we can control is our membership. Having them active, having them involved, having them take the streets. We will shut down your city. You will not be able to function without dealing with us fairly, and that’s the way it is right now in Chicago. We’re getting thousands of people to show up at school closing hearings, and what they are saying with one voice is “Keep your hands off my school.” That’s where I throw in the Star Trek thing, the Kobayashi Maru. You’ve got to change the rules if you want to win.