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CTU President Lewis Responds to Video Mocking Education Secretary

By Chuck Sudo in News on Nov 16, 2011 10:10PM

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis held a news conference this morning to say she would not resign amidst criticism of a video that surfaced Monday where she mocked the lisp of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and talked candidly about her past marijuana use at a conference last month.

"We will not use this 120 seconds of poor humor to pass judgment on our entire body of work," Lewis said. "Or our fight to end the structural inequality in our schools. What I said should not be taken as an example of what a teacher is or is not. I was speaking as an individual, albeit as a leader of a union, and as a person who is part of a coalition that has been in a hard and mostly unpublicized fight against some very powerful forces."

Lewis apologized personally to Duncan for her remarks but, according to Edward McClelland, that was all she apologized for. McClelland makes the case of Lewis mocking Duncan's lisp as a smaller battle in the larger war against public schools.

The point Lewis was trying to make is that private schools don’t have the resources -- or the interest -- in children who have physical or mental difficulties. Private schools like to assume that, like the people of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, all their children are above average. I attended an urban public school. My lisp was eradicated by a speech therapist who served the entire district, traveling from school to school. Private schools may not be able to afford such specialists. Or special education and remedial programs.

Lewis’s comment also sounds as though it was motivated by the class resentment she feels toward Duncan. Lewis graduated from Kenwood Academy. Kenwood kids can’t stand those stuck up “Lab Scabs.”

Carol Felsenthal's interview with Lewis on Chicago magazine's website also touches on the Lewis/Duncan rift. (Our emphasis in italics.)

Felsenthal: So you have an issue with [Secretary of Education, former CPS CEO] Arne Duncan? Lewis: Yeah, because he has a bachelor’s in sociology from Harvard and played basketball [he’s an education expert]? I think he’s completely and totally unqualified to do this job. And to me, it’s sort of indicative of how education is such a political tool now, as opposed to [his] having a real bent toward education. I think this is a way for Obama to try to make an olive branch with Republicans. There’s this mentality that outsiders and people with no education background are the… experts…. They want to privatize public education…. Arne’s policies here were a disaster.

CF: Give me a couple of examples.
The whole idea of school closings and turnarounds and charter schools…. [When they closed a school] children were not going to other schools, especially in high school. They were choosing not to go to school…. They had never thought about the ramifications of what a school closing means. So if I close a school here, now this means that my children have to walk through gang territory…. There was just no understanding of community…. There was somebody sitting with a spreadsheet and making decisions without having any experience in that community.

CF: So Arne Duncan becomes Secretary of Education because he has the ties to the Obamas through the University of Chicago Lab School?
Yes.... From what we understood—and I wasn’t in the room, so who knows—there was a choice between [Stanford Professor] Linda Darling Hammond—who is a respected researcher, has a PhD—and Arne Duncan, and you pick Arne? …. To me this would be like having a custodian in a hospital be the Surgeon General. He has worked in the hospital. He’s had some experience, but now you’re going to put him in charge?

CF: What accounts for Arne Duncan’s kind of golden aura?
He’s tall.

Lewis said she still has the support of the teachers union.

"I have no fear of saying what needs to be said in order to protect the interests of our students and the people who teach them," Lewis said. "I have never shied away from what I think and maybe that's one reason why I stand here today."