RIVER NORTH — Speaking to a well-to-do audience at the City Club of Chicago Tuesday, CTU President Karen Lewis blamed big banks and "rich white people" for the financial problems that have led to school closings.
The Chicago Teachers Union head specifically cited Bank of America in saying the foreclosure crisis over the last five years had "devastated" minority communities on the South and West sides and led to the "underutilization" that prompted CPS closings.
Lewis also cited the "proliferation" of charter schools in minority neighborhoods, adding that "top-down chaos" had produced a "culture of fear" in Chicago Public Schools. Yet she went on to blame the overarching problem of funding education through property taxes.
She said "rich white people" who know nothing about education were running it into the ground and, compared with the suburbs, were resistant to pay for education in a school system where less than 10 percent of the students are white.
"Rich white people think they know what's in the best interests of children of African-Americans and Latinos," Lewis said. "There's something about these folks who use little black and brown children as stage props at one press conference while announcing they want to fire, lay off or lock up their parents at another." That line drew applause from the otherwise quiet luncheon audience.
"They don't want to pay," Lewis said. "But do you want to pay for prisons?"
Lewis later allowed, "We clearly have a resource issue," adding, "We can solve this problem. But we have to work together to do it." She offered to go "arm in arm" with CPS representatives to press for more school funding from the General Assembly.
Lewis said a financial transfer tax of $1 on the buyer and seller of stocks and other issues traded in Illinois could produce more than $10 billion, and also spoke of a commuter tax. She also attacked funds siphoned off by tax-increment-financing districts.
Like Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whom she otherwise never named, she would not rule out higher property taxes, saying all sources of income had to be examined, but insisted it was better than the alternative.
Lewis cited "priorities," saying, "There is nothing innovative, bold or visionary about closing schools, firing teachers, professionals and clinicians and attacking the pensions of our retirees.
"Bold thinking says no schools will close," she added. "Bold thinking says we will not balance our budgets on the backs of children."
Lewis couched her speech in a baseball metaphor, saying she had dreamed of being a Major League player as a childhood Minnie Minoso fan with a Nellie Fox glove. She said it taught her "that first I had to dream," but that "I had to take the field" and that "I had to ignore the naysayers and keep my head high," qualities she said served her through last year's teachers strike and on through today.
"This is a job I did not want," Lewis said, adding that she had hoped to be retired by now after 22 years as a high school chemistry teacher. "There's nothing radical about me," she insisted.
Lewis said she gave up being a baseball fan in 1969 when the Cubs lost to "the raggedy Mets," but that she had recently returned to being a Sox fan.
She brought things full circle by saying, "There is nothing wrong with dreaming that everyone is equal, that all playing fields are even and that all anyone has is an equal opportunity to get ahead.
"We have to work on it together to make it happen," she added, later quoting Langston Hughes and suggesting, "Let's give our students wings, not clip them." She pointedly said that no one suggests closing Wrigley Field when the Cubs are playing poorly.