Teaching Profession

Karen Lewis, Fiery Leader of Chicago Teachers’ Union, Will Step Down

By Madeline Will — June 22, 2018 2 min read
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Karen Lewis, the outspoken president of the Chicago Teachers Union, is stepping down from her position due to poor health.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Lewis, who spearheaded the historic 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, submitted her retirement papers to the Chicago Board of Education on Friday, weeks after undergoing brain surgery. She told the Tribune that her surgeon said her cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2014, was likely to return and that she would need chemotherapy.

“I want my members to know first that I’m not abandoning them, I just will be an emerita,” she told the Tribune. “I will be around to help do things, I’m not disappearing anywhere, and I’m going to be here for whatever people want to do with me.”

In a statement, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson called Lewis a “tireless advocate for Chicago’s educators and students.”

“I want to thank Karen for her commitment to promoting quality instruction, and I know she will remain an important voice for our schools going forward,” she said.

Lewis, whose ill health forced her to abandon her plan to run for mayor of Chicago in 2015, said she will continue to be involved in the 2019 mayoral election.

“My plan is to try to get somebody to unseat Rahm [Emanuel],” she told the Tribune. Lewis and Emanuel have been at odds for years—during the last mayoral race, she handpicked Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to challenge Emanuel and ensure that education would be a major issue in the campaign.

Lewis first won the union presidency in 2010 and won a third term in 2016. During her tenure as president, she led a seven-day teachers’ strike—the first in 25 years and the largest teachers’ strike since the 2006 Detroit strike (though the statewide strikes this spring might have since beat Chicago’s record). The Chicago Teachers Union had called for teacher pay raises and fought against a tough, Emanuel-backed teacher-evaluation system that incorporated student test scores.

In a 2017 opinion essay for Education Week, Lewis compared Emanuel to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and called for more social services for Chicago students in public schools.

“Our vision for the schools Chicago’s students deserve includes high-quality, well-resourced facilities with enforceable class-size limits, funding for special education, libraries, wraparound services, and the arts,” she wrote. “And these schools must work in partnership with parents, who are an integral part of their children’s education and upon whom our members rely.”

In an interview with the Tribune about her resignation, Lewis briefly reflected on her tenure: “I think the thing I can be most proud of is, when I started in 2010, our union was extraordinarily divided,” she said. “I think one of the things we were able to do was unite people to help solve some of the biggest problems.”

Image: In this March 23, 2016, file photo, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis speaks at a news conference in Chicago. —Nam Y. Huh/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.