Chicago AFT Boss Karen Lewis May Pay the Price of Playing to Traditionalist Illogic
It is one thing to be an insurgent attempting to take control of an organization, and another to actually be the boss of it. Especially when one takes control of an outfit on an agenda of poorly thought-out opposition to the platform of a predecessor deemed too accommodating to the other side. When you become the boss, you realize that sometimes you have to take half a loaf, often because there is no other option. Other times, you realize that your allies are making demands that are just impossible to fulfill even in the ideal. But the most-radical of the dissidents you have stirred up don’t care about compromise at all — and will turn on your leadership once your decisions disappoint them.
This is a lesson nearly everyone who becomes a leader under such circumstances learns all too well. This includes Karen Lewis, the notoriously demagogic president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Chicago affiliate, the Chicago Teachers Union, who now faces a challenge to her leadership from dissident traditionalists similar to that she successfully mounted against predecessor Marilyn Stewart two years ago.
One has to wonder why any traditionalist would oppose Lewis at all? After all, she garnered something of a defensive victory for the AFT affiliate – and for more-radical traditionalists – a few months ago when she mounted a strike against Second City Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his effort to step up the reform efforts begun by predecessor Richard M. Daley three decades ago. Taking advantage of Emanuel’s two greatest vulnerabilities – the fact that few people actually like him much, and the Obama administration’s desire to avoid a protracted strike in the president’s adopted hometown during his re-election bid – Lewis stalled the mayor’s more-ambitious reforms.
But as Lewis’ colleagues, most-notably more moderate New York City AFT boss Michael Mulgrew and Randi Weingarten, the head of the national AFT – have learned to their dismay, catering to the most-radical traditionalists does nothing to keep them satisfied. The dissidents, led by Tanya Saunders-Wolffe, a teacher at Jesse Owens Elementary Community Academy on the city’s south side, complain that Lewis wasn’t tough enough at the negotiating table. They are annoyed that Lewis didn’t do enough to stop Emanuel from launching the latest round of school shutdowns that will lead to more AFT rank-and-file members losing jobs; they are also likely annoyed with the fact that the district actually managed to defuse efforts by the AFT and others to stop it from unilaterally deciding to close schools by getting a law passed giving it more time to hold hearings in order to seek more input.
None of this should be a surprise. Last year, Lewis struggled to get more-radical traditionalists in the rank-and-file to approve her motion to suspend the strike and go back to work. These traditionalists were dissatisfied that the deal the union struck with Emanuel didn’t give them the 30 percent raises over four years they wanted, and still forced them to be subjected to evaluations using student test score growth data; they realized that the contract was little different in substance than the one Emanuel offered up just before the local launched its work stoppage.
Considering the long-term fiscal woes the city is facing – including a defined-benefit teachers’ pension deficit of $6.8 billion (and more-likely $9.3 billion, according to Dropout Nation’s analysis last month) – there was no way Lewis could have gotten such high levels of salary increases. The fact that the state is mandating the use of student performance data in evaluations – and thus is a non-negotiable – also made it all but impossible for Lewis to do more than demand a later date for incorporating objective data into the performance management system; objectively measuring performance is going to be the rule for nearly all teachers and not an exception. But it’s hard to tell agitated rank-and-file members that it is time to accept reality when you cater to their illogic.
Meanwhile Lewis’ tenure has left many rank-and-file members wanting. The public acclaim Lewis has received from the traditionalists outside of Chicago – especially the likes of once-respectable education historian (and intellectual charlatan) Diane Ravitch – have obscured the fact that her tenure hasn’t been marked by much success. The AFT got rolled two years ago when then-Mayor Daley teamed up with reformers to successfully pass a modest teacher evaluation revamp that required the use of student test score data. The fact that the city also won the ability to extend the amount of hours schools are open and thus, the time it can require teachers to work in theory (although in reality, the district has agreed to bring on 477 teachers to work those time periods) hasn’t also endeared Lewis to the most-radical of rank-and-file members, who want teaching to remain one of the least-demanding and best-compensating professions in the public sector. Meanwhile Lewis hasn’t succeeded in neutralizing predecessor Stewart’s coalition, which remains a formidable threat and is backing Saunders-Wolffe’s campaign to unseat her.
Meanwhile the strike itself hasn’t been the success Lewis has proclaimed it to be. Especially when it came to the implicit effort to stave off the long-term threat to the union’s existence posed by the expansion of school choice. By making it more-difficult for Emanuel to overhaul the traditional district, the AFT has given the mayor carte blanche to push aggressively on increasing the number of charter schools serving Second City children. As Dropout Nation noted during the strike last year, Emanuel now has an opportunity to fully abandon the obsolete and ineffective traditional district model and embrace the Hollywood Model we advocate on these pages. Given the AFT’s lack of success in unionizing charters, the prospect of more schools not being staffed by union members is a nightmare for Lewis and her allies. While some members of the city council are attempting to pass a moratorium on charter school expansion, Emanuel will more than likely use his bully pulpit (and ability as mayor to make life difficult for council-members) to put a stop to that effort.
Lewis plays to the anti-intellectualism of her allies with the nastiest kinds of class warfare rhetoric, and by putting out shoddy white papers taking aim at charter schools accusing them of perpetuating “educational apartheid”. But her mouth (including her infamous move back in December to join Ravitch in politicizing the Newtown massacre) has also brought plenty of embarrassment to traditionalists with a little more common sense and decorum. Lewis’ battles against Chicago increasing the amount of time teachers had to work by a mere 39 minutes (which still meant the teachers would work 21 minutes less than counterparts in New York City) also didn’t play well to taxpayers bearing the high costs of making teaching a comfortable profession. More importantly for traditionalists, Lewis been unable to articulate a vision or strategy that allows for either the AFT affiliate – or the national union as a whole – to survive, to play a truly valuable role in helping all kids receive high-quality education, or to help younger, more reform-minded teachers who are increasingly the majority of members elevate the teaching profession.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Lewis took office three years ago on a promise to more-fervent traditionalists within the AFT local to do the equivalent of turning back time. A call to restore the union’s ability to render the district fully servile to its demands at a time when the mixed success of Daley and Emanuel have made that a vain fantasy. A demand for the city to preserve traditional teacher compensation – including seniority-based pay scales and a lack of accountability for performance – even as other districts and states are beginning to admit the reality that the schemes are too expensive (as well as ineffective in spurring student achievement and rewarding high-quality teaching) to maintain. An embrace of the old-school industrial union model at a time when younger teachers are demanding a professional association model that better fits the profession. Contrary to William F. Buckley’s famed mantra at the launch of National Review, standing athwart history yelling “stop” is not a strategy for success, especially as families in Chicago – including those from poor and minority backgrounds – recognize that the very traditionalist thinking Lewis and her union defends has condemned far too many of their children (and ours) to poverty and prison.
One can easily argue that the very policies Lewis has defended – and that the union had successfully advocated until Daley took control of the district three decades ago – is one of the reasons why Chicago’s crime levels, albeit lower than they were during the 1980s, are still far too high in the poorest communities where failure mills remain in place. As the Chicago Tribune showed yesterday in a special report on the connections between chronic truancy and crime, the low-quality instruction that the AFT local implicitly defends through its opposition to teacher quality reforms and other efforts by Emanuel to transform the district’s operations leads to more kids, especially young men, ending up on the path to economic and social despair.
So Lewis has found herself in a tough spot. She made promises to the most-fervent traditionalists in the ranks she could not keep, and thus, they are ready to hold her accountable for her failings. At the same time, Lewis cannot rise above her own lack of thoughtfulness to step up and behave like a leader who understands that systemic reform is critical to both helping the kids she proclaims to care about, and remaking the affiliate (as well as the rest of the AFT) into a professional association that prizes good-and-great teachers instead of aiding and abetting educational abuse. Essentially Lewis holds a leadership position, but isn’t truly a leader. Chances are that Lewis will retain her office. But it is clear that she can’t control the fervent traditionalist illogic she herself helped unleash. Depending on what happens in the next few months – and how angrier more-radical traditionalists become over her stewardship – Lewis may not be AFT local president that much longer.