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Chicago Teachers Union president tells rich donors, give money 'but walk away'

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who recently mobilized teachers during a seven-day strike, has a message for the rich who support Chicago public school reform: "give your money but walk away . . . "

The Chicago Tribune reported Lewis said, "I think they should do what they do when they give money to the Lyric Opera . . . I don't believe they give money to the Lyric Opera and then go tell the singers how to sing . . . Give your money and walk away, buddies. When you don't know something, don't dilettante your way into it."

Her comments were directed toward wealthy backers of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's efforts to overhaul and reform Chicago's underperforming, and literally, crumbling schools. The CTU chief said before education reform can be addressed, poverty and race must be talked about honestly.

Lewis's valid argument is when children are distracted by what's going on in their lives outside the classroom, teaching them can be a profound challenge. In Chicago, there are children who live in a section of the South Shore neighborhood, known as "Terror Town." They have to cross gang demarcation lines walking to school. This neighborhood is not the only one, there are others -- Englewood, Roseland, Garfield Park . . .

Making a wrong move or running into a gang recruiter or stray bullet can mean -- not only a a tardy slip or missed day from school -- but dying a premature death. How's that for starting the school day with stress and anxiety? It's enough to make adults, let alone children, act out. These are war zones, and in the midst of war, unorthodox survival methods prevail.

According to Chicago Public Schools, 140 schools are 50 percent underenrolled and warrant closing. The deadline for announcing closings is Dec. 1, but the new CPS CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, is asking state legislators for an extension until March 1. Yet Alderman Bob Fioretti, 2nd ward, says eight charter schools moved into his ward, while five neighborhood schools closed. The CTU agrees that charter schools are funded at the expense and neglect of neighborhood schools.

CPS acknowledges that parents and community groups should be engaged concerning school closings. Lewis says a one-year moratorium should be put in place, because each time new leadership takes over at CPS, laws are changed based on what's in vogue for the new school district CEO via the mayor.

The last CPS CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, "resigned" after 17 months on the job, and prior to the teachers strike failed at leading pre-strike negotiations. He left with a stellar recommendation and a full year's salary. Byrd-Bennett has been CEO since Oct. 12.

Prior to Brizard, Terry Mazany, appointed by former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, served as Interim CPS CEO beginning in November 2010. Before Mazany's term, Ron Huberman, fresh from the Chicago Transit Authority with no education experience, began his brief stint as CPS CEO in January 2009.

The revolving door with no stop post has led to instability for the CPS district, and the ones who suffer are the children. Not only do many of them live in war torn, economically depressed, abandoned neighborhoods, but reaching the safe haven of a school building is not a given either. With no authentic leadership and a mayor who's out of touch with students' day-to-day realities, when will schools improve for the children?

Lewis is correct about poverty and social issues, but poverty and race not only need to be talked about, but jobs and opportunities for parents would also minimize major CPS challenges. Teachers, at least most of them, are not miracle workers, and parents have the ultimate responsibility for children's education and well being. No school reformation rhetoric can change these carved-in-stone realities.

Copyright 2012, Phyllis L. Smith Asinyanbi.