CHICAGO – If well-known people want to avoid controversy, they should avoid making ugly comments about respected citizens and public officials, particularly in public.
That’s a lesson Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has yet to learn.
Last week, while researching footage of Lewis for a documentary project, we at Education Action Group came across a YouTube video of Lewis giving the keynote address at the recent Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference in Seattle.
During the course of her remarks, Lewis attempted to draw a few laughs by making fun of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s speech impediment.
“Now you know he went to private school ’cause if he had gone to public school he would have had that lisp fixed,” she said.
Lewis went on to laughingly talk about her former marijuana use during her college days.
“I spent those years smoking lots of weed – self-medicating,” she said. “Self-medicating – thank you! Sounds like you all did, too. Oh, I’m sorry, there’s kids here. I wasn’t supposed to say that, right? Too late!”
We thought Lewis’ comments were highly inappropriate for the leader of one of the nation’s largest teachers unions, so we released the pertinent clips of the video to the media.
Reporters were interested, to say the least. The video clips drew coverage from dozens of newspapers and television stations within 24 hours, including Fox News and the NBC, CBS and ABC television affiliates in Chicago.
You can watch an ABC-7 clip by clicking on the image above. Visit EAG’s In the News page on our redesigned website for more extensive coverage.
Sending all the wrong messages
The vast majority of journalists covering the story reacted with shock and dismay. Why wouldn’t they?
To their credit, teachers unions around the nation have taken a leading role in focusing on the age-old problem of bullying in school. Teachers everywhere tell kids it’s wrong to pick on those who are different or disadvantaged.
Then the president of a huge teachers union makes fun of a cabinet-level federal official because he speaks with a lisp. Doesn’t that sort of cloud the very important anti-bullying message?
Lewis’ light-hearted words regarding her former marijuana use also sent the wrong signal to the children of Chicago. She sounded as though she was endorsing the use of illegal drugs, even while acknowledging there were kids within earshot. We wonder how much the parents of Chicago appreciated that.
More than anything, we found Lewis’ attack on Duncan to be further proof of the hostility that union leaders feel toward those who want to improve public schools.
Since the beginning of his service in the Obama administration, Duncan has worked to introduce more teacher accountability and increase the odds that all American students have a quality instructor in their classroom. But many of his initiatives, including the Race to the Top program, have upset the teachers unions.
Union leaders hate reformers because they threaten Big Labor’s perch atop the public education establishment. They like the status quo, because it keeps their coffers full of union dues money. They don’t care if the status quo continues to cheat millions of children out of a quality education.
Lewis’ attack on Duncan is a perfect illustration of her contempt for those who want to stick their noses in her business and make our schools better.
Blaming the messenger
Lewis issued an apology to Duncan within a day of the release of the video, and we assumed that was the end of the story.
But yesterday she called a press conference to blast EAG for being “neo-conservative, anti-labor and anti-public education bloggers,” and suggested that we were simply trying to “distract” the public from the many good things she’s done as union president.
In other words, EAG is somehow responsible for the comments Lewis made in Seattle. After all, nobody would have noticed her snarky remarks if we hadn’t sent the video around the nation in a mass email.
So it’s our fault, right?
During her press conference, Lewis encouraged everyone to watch the entire 35-minute video of her Seattle speech, to gain a true appreciation of what she was trying to say. We accepted her challenge and, guess what? We came across even more insults that she leveled against Chicago education officials.
She attacked Chicago school board member Henry Bienen because he was on the governing board of Bear Stearns “when it crashed.” She attacked school board member Penny Pritzker, who owns Hyatt Hotels, because “she won’t pay her cleaning ladies a living wage.”
“These are the people we’re dealing with,” she said of the board members, just weeks before she is scheduled to start negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with those same board members.
Lewis even blasted Marilyn Stewart, her predecessor as president of CTU, calling her “completely inarticulate, the poster child for ‘bad teacher,'” and pointing out that Stewart also has a speech impediment. Lewis went on to say that Stewart’s personal limitations “worked against” the union.
It was bad enough a few weeks ago, when news broke that Lewis was trying to stop Chicago teachers from agreeing to work longer school days to help kids catch up. Now she’s lashing out at the very people she should be working with to improve the plight of Chicago’s students.
As EAG CEO Kyle Olson said in a press release earlier today, “It is clear that Karen Lewis will personally attack anyone who disagrees with her or crosses her.
“At what point are her (fellow union) members going to hold her accountable, and determine that her nasty comments about various individuals reflect poorly on teachers and cripple the efforts of various people to improve Chicago’s public schools?”
MEANWHILE, CHICAGO KIDS FALLING BEHIND
Instead of mocking her colleagues in education, one might expect Lewis to spend more time worrying about the growing performance gap between black students and their peers in Chicago.
A recent analysis by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research determined that black elementary students in Chicago have lost ground to white, Latino and Asian students in math and reading proficiency, according to a story published by the Chicago Tribune.
The performance gap between races has closed in other cities around the nation, but seems to be persistent in Chicago, according to the newspaper. That’s odd, considering the district has spent several decades investing in special programs to assist black students.
“Even for schools so weighed down by violence, poverty and dysfunction in their neighborhoods, news of this growing deficit was surprising to researchers considering the strides African-American students have made nationally over the same period,” the newspaper article said.
Apparently something is very wrong in Chicago Public Schools.
Chicago’s new education CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, may have put his finger on the problem during a recent speech to the Chicago Urban League. He suggested that too many adults involved with Chicago schools are occupied with their own agendas, while student issues slip through the cracks.
“It’s not the students’ fault,” he said in comments recorded by the Tribune. “It’s our fault as adults. In order to turn things around, we must make sure that the students and their achievement always come first. Not adults. Not politics. Not administrators. Not contracts.”
At least someone in Chicago has his head connected properly. We wish his thoughtful approach to such serious problems was shared by many others in the district, most notably Lewis and her cohorts at the self-serving CTU.