School Choice & Charters Opinion

Open Letter to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis

By Marilyn Rhames — March 02, 2015 4 min read
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Dear Karen,

It does my heart well to see you on the news and hear you on radio, doing interviews about the mayoral race and the future of the Chicago Public Schools. It’s great to see you back on the front lines, despite your unfortunate battle with brain cancer. I continue to pray for your full recovery. God is able!

As a charter school teacher, I was initially intimidated by you and reluctant to engage. I feared that you would outright dismiss me as some naïve education reformer, or, worse, demonize me as a pawn for some greedy corporation who just wants to profit from privatizing public education.

Instead, you listened to me. You challenged me. You read my blogs and took the time to write me brief but enormously encouraging emails (except for that one exchange on Twitter, but I digress). You told me that we had more in common than not, and you charged me to continue probing and asking difficult questions.

As two “strong black women” who live on the South side of Chicago, we are acutely aware that it’s our communities that are most affected by education reform, with all its blessings and curses. We share a deep passion for the children who learn in CPS because they are quite literally our babies—our nephews, nieces, cousins, godchildren, and “play” children. These kids are also our neighbors, and we’ll still have to live next to them if they go to college and find gainful employment or if they drop out of high school and start selling dope on the front porch.

When I learned of your illness, I was shocked and saddened. Not only do I care about your personal wellbeing, but I was excited to see you run for mayor of Chicago!

Though I had my issues with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I did support much of his education agenda. I lobbied for his longer school day initiative in my blog and in education forums. And though I was seriously offended when he cursed you out—a man should never verbally abuse a woman, especially one who represents some 26,000 public school teachers—I found it in my heart to forgive him. I even went as far as to publicly declare my nonsupport of the 2012 teacher’s strike (which certainly didn’t make me many friends).

But when Rahm closed 50 schools in 2013 in low-income African American and Latino communities on the South and West sides, I felt betrayed. His actions turned “education reform” into a racially charged slur. The kind of education reform I support empowers poor people, not demoralizes them, renders them powerless, and limits their choices.

The only reason I didn’t join in the CTU protests was because I was pregnant and my husband wouldn’t let me go. So I stayed home and blogged about my increasing displeasure here and here and here.

I am writing you now to encourage you to keep fighting. Though you may tire more readily and some days you might feel weak, your commitment to engage in civil discourse about the state of urban education in the midst of your health crisis causes me to lean in to you even more.

In your stead, you put forth a formidable candidate in Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who, with only a small war chest and despite Rahm having radio and TV endorsements by President Barack Obama and numerous newspapers, forced a historic run-off election to be held on April 7. And if elected, Chuy would be the first Latino mayor of Chicago, which could potentially forge much-needed unity between blacks and Latinos in the city.

Meanwhile, the people have spoken: Some 87 percent of Chicagoans voted for an elected school board, not one that’s appointed and controlled by the mayor. This non-binding referendum could be the catalyst for ending Chicago’s reign as the only school district of the 866 districts in Illinois that bans school board elections.

As you know, Rahm wants to maintain mayoral power to appoint school board members, while Chuy is pushing for an elected school board—but it’s not up to them. State legislators would have to change the law, and newly elected Governor Bruce Rauner, who favors the status quo, would have to sign it law.

So the question remains: When will true democracy come to Chicago? For most of the past 60 years, the city has functioned on a one-party system, heavily controlled by the unions and machine politics. For this reason, Chicago residents have nicknamed Cook County as “Crook County.” Racist policies. Corrupt politicians. Street violence. Extortive fees and fines on the poor. And an insurmountable fiscal mess. (Just last week, Moody’s Investor Services downgraded Chicago’s credit rating to just two notches above “junk” status.)

Worse, we have a jaded citizenry—only 33 percent of registerd voters hit the polls last week!

I had planned to write you this open letter during your mayoral candidacy. I was going to ask you to refuse to repeat partisan rhetoric that pits the caricature of charter schools against the caricature of district schools. I wanted to hear your specific solutions to specific problems—your plan for the city.

But I’ll ask Chuy, instead.

Take care of yourself, my sister. I look forward to future conversations with you about improving education in the city!

Yours truly,


The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.