Teachers union leader: school enrollment figures misleading

To get what you want, you must put people in power who agree with you, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis told a UIC audience Dec. 5.

Karen Lewis at a press conference announcing the Chicago Teachers Union strike.

Karen Lewis at a press conference announcing the Chicago Teachers Union strike. Photo: Chicago Teachers Union Local 1

“In the next City Council election we should have 25 or 30 teachers, firefighters or police officers running for office,” she told her mostly student audience in Lecture Center C3.

“This is where the real discourse takes place. You have to have the ability to put forward people who have your interests at heart.”

The fiery Lewis, who led the seven-day teachers’ strike earlier this fall, spoke as part of the “Future of Chicago” series sponsored by the political science department.

Teachers and other public employees have a hold on the grassroots, she said. “They can’t compete with us on that level,” she said.

She advised keeping “an ear to the ground” and talking to people who’ve been victimized by the “ruling class.”

“You can’t have a seat at the table when you’re on the menu,” Lewis said.

The biggest issue in the Chicago Public Schools now, school closings, brought this observation:

“One of the craziest things I’ve heard lately is that since 2000, the Chicago Public Schools have lost 145,000 students.

“But by CPS’ own data, in 2000 we had 435,000 students, and now we have 406,000.”

Suggesting that Board of Education administrators who want to close schools are behind the glaring misinformation, Lewis asked, “How do they say these things and no one ever asks them, ‘Where do these numbers come from?’

More questionable numbers, according to Lewis: the board claim that up to 140 schools are underutilized.

She said one parent did the math and concluded this was based on a board premise that a classroom isn’t overcrowded until it reaches 36 students.

“Is that reasonable?” Lewis asked. “I talked to a woman the other day who has 33 second graders — that doesn’t count as overcrowded by the board.”

Lewis said she’s noticed over the last five years that when a student doesn’t grasp a concept right away, he or she gives up.

“What’s happening when the struggle for education becomes so easily frustrated?” she asked.

As a teacher — she taught chemistry for 22 years before heading the teachers’ union — she “saw the joy of teaching and learning being sapped by policies,” including what she called “no child left untested.”

A good education often is granted only to those rich enough to pay for it, she said.

“Finland is ashamed of the fact that it has a 4 percent child poverty rate,” she said. “We have a 25 percent child poverty rate and we look the other way.

“We tell children, ‘You didn’t pick the right womb.’”

Lewis’ love for her profession shined through her remarks.

“Education is what feeds your soul,” she said. “It stays with you forever. Education is what pushes you to think about the world.

“To be in front of a class and watch that light finally turn on — you can’t buy that. It’s the most amazing feeling ever.”

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