Union Head: Corporate Donors Nothing But Ed ‘Dilettantes’

Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, feels that philanthropists who donate money to public education should treat their donations like they would the money they give to the opera: as a gift without any strings attached. No more than a business leader would want a say on artistic matters from a place that benefits from his patronage, those who give to public education shouldn't be expecting a say in how the schools are run.

Lewis pointed out that being a successful business leader doesn't mean that when it comes to education policy, one is any more than a ‘dilettante.' The caustic remarks were directed at Penny Pritzker, who is a scion of one of the city's richest families and a member of the school board, and also to education reformer and retired private equity executive Bruce Rauner who has recently become very active in the movement to expand the charter school movement in Chicago.

Lewis, who won key concessions from Emanuel's school board by leading her union's 29,000 members on a seven-day strike in September, said social and economic concerns have to be addressed before schools can get better.

"We cannot fix what's wrong with our schools until we are prepared to have honest conversations about poverty and race," Lewis said. "Until we do, we will be mired in the no-excuses mentality (that) poverty doesn't matter. Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who are distracted by their lives. Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who have seen trauma like none of us in this room can imagine."

She said that the administration of current city mayor Rahm Emanuel gives too much of a voice to people like Pritzker and Rauner — and in the process drowning out those of students, parents, and community members.

Less than two months after settling with the city over the next teachers contract, which brought to an end a 10-day strike, the CTA is gearing up for another fight — this time over the proposed closure of dozens of schools in order to shrink the $1 billion budget deficit the system expects to face next year. According to the district, it is urgent that some schools be closed or merged as quickly as possible, especially the 140 that are underenrolled by 50% or more at the last count.

The district's new CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, plans to ask state legislators next week to extend the deadline for announcing school closings from Dec. 1 to March 31. District officials have said they need the extra time to engage the community on which schools to close. Lewis says the legislation should not be amended and wants the district to put a one-year moratorium on any school closings.

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