Q&A with CTU President Karen Lewis

We spoke with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis about school safety, closings and more. Read what she had to say. Visit School Safety for more.

CPS has said that the teachers union has taken a pass on school safety. What is your response to that? What exactly has or is the union doing to help provide for a safe transition?

What do they mean we’ve taken a pass? We didn’t know about the closings until a couple of weeks ago. We didn’t know the names of the schools that were on the list. So it’s impossible to ask us for a plan since we were never involved in the process from the beginning to come up with some sort of alternate plan.

Our plan is not to shut schools down. We wanted to take a year to put together a master plan. We were never asked to comment on this plan. We were unaware of what schools and what actions were going to take place at these schools till two weeks ago. We don’t think that’s enough time for us to put forth a credible plan because it takes more time to do it well. We don’t do things in a slap-dash manner.

We would need to spend time talking with the community, students, parents and the police department. We make decisions based on data, and not just something last-minute.

What are your thoughts on the Safe Passage program?

From what I understand -- and again I don’t know that much about it because we haven’t talked that much about it -- it was a relatively small plan done at some schools that doesn’t seem to be particularly comprehensive. Safety isn’t just about getting kids from point A to point B. It’s about having support in place. And safety is about making kids feel comfortable in their environment and to understand what’s going on. That’s all I know about it, and to be honest with you, they haven’t given us any real details.

Several hearings are underway for parents, teachers and community members to express their concerns about school closings and safety. What are your goals for the hearings and what do you hope will happen as a result of them?

I think that one of the things that needs to come to the fore is what are schools going to look like when schools are combined. We are concerned about efficiency and utilization rates. We see schools that would be overcrowded, so in trying to solve one problem we may be bringing up another one. I hope schools use utilization factors. I also hope that schools have a very strong community and strong programmatic process.

This is a very unfortunate experience. You get 120 seconds to beg for your school. It’s almost humiliating. It’s a process that some people think is a sham. I hope the Board of Education is strong enough to make truly tough decisions. The decision to close schools is an easy one. The decision to take schools off the list that do not need to be on that list is the tough decision. That’s my hope for the hearings.

If the school closings happen as recommended, what are the next steps CTU will take or what is on the agenda in the aftermath of shuttered schools?

I don’t want to think in that direction. I don’t want to think negatively. Of course we will have contingency plans. We will be there for our members, our children, and our community. Clearly, the problem is not something that is particular to Chicago. This is a national attack from a corporate agenda on public schools. What I would hope is we could call for a national conversation about how we want to go. What we never talk about as a choice is a quality neighborhood school.

What I would like to see happen is a study on what’s happening to the schools and the school actions that have taken place already. This is just a massive, massive attack.

It’s sad that the state of education in this country is that we will close schools and disrupt children’s’ lives. We will balance the budget on the backs of small children -- and I think that’s heinous.