Skip to main content

Thoughts on the Legacy of Karen Jennings Lewis

Mark Naison: Karen Lewis, a beloved chemistry teacher as well as union leader, challenged the "civil rights rationale" for school privatization head on.
Karen Jennings Lewis

When I think of Karen Jennings Lewis, I not only think of someone who led the most important teacher's strike in modern US history, but someone who did more to undermine the Obama Administration's attacks on teachers unions and public schools than any other person in the country.

By going head to head with Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's first chief of staff before he became Mayor of Chicago, and Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who stood behind Emmanuel one hundred percent, Karen Lewis, a beloved chemistry teacher as well as union leader, challenged the "civil rights rationale" for school privatization head on.

Karen Lewis, a beloved chemistry teacher as well as union leader, challenged the "civil rights rationale" for school privatization head on.

For those who don't remember, the Obama administration, almost immediately after the President's inauguration, launched a broad-based attack on public education with three key components:

  • promotion of the Common Core Standards and universal testing
  • the implementation of "test based accountability: for teachers, schools and entire school districts; and
Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

  • preferential funding for charter schools over public schools.

These measures were promoted with the argument that public schools had failed students of color and that by defending public schools, teachers unions were undermining racial progress and keeping whole communities locked in poverty.

This argument, promoted by a huge and influential organization called "Democrats for Education Reform," was seized on by the Obama Administration's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and implemented in one of the few bipartisan pieces of legislation passed during the Obama years "Race to the Top"

All over the country, promoters of charter schools, the Common Core Standards and test-based accountability were calling these policies instruments of racial justice, using the slogan "School Reform is the Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century," while the measures they were proposing were destabilizing communities, demoralizing teachers and leading to a sharp reduction in the number of Black teachers in the nation's public schools

For the first four years of the Obama administration, public school advocates fought an uphill battle against this assault, losing more battles than winning them. But in 2012, when a brilliant and charismatic teachers union leader, Karen Lewis, led a strike in the nation's third largest district that fought for more community input into school management, lower class size, an end to school closings and charter promotions, and more investment in student and family services within schools. That strike catalyzed an alliance between a teachers union and Black community organizations that helped lead the union to victory and send a message that reverberated throughout the nation.

With a brilliant Black teacher as the most visible face of teacher unionism in the country, it became harder and harder for the Obama Administration to claim that teachers unions were a drag on racial progress and argue that charter schools and testing were the wave of the future. Her model of strike leadership also pushed teachers unions to more explicitly identify themselves with campaigns for racial justice and community involvement in public schools.

mak-naison-175

Karen Lewis helped break the momentum of the Obama Administration's attacks on teachers unions and public education. For that, she will not only be recognized as one of the most influential union leaders of the 21st Century, but as perhaps the nation's most powerful and effective opponent of school privatization

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent