Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has come under fire of late for comments made during her keynote speech at the 4th Annual NW Conference on Teaching for Social Justice in Seattle last month. The speech posted on YouTube shows Lewis mocking U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's speech impediment, and telling a crowd, which included children, that she spent college "self-medicating" at Dartmouth by "smoking lots of Weed."
Lewis said of her recreational drug habits during college (via CNS News):
"I taught at a selective enrollment school for twenty years. So I was never in danger of losing my job. Plus, I look dang good on paper. I am the only black woman in the class of 1974 from Dartmouth College. Woo. People are impressed. Let me tell you, I spent those years smoking lots of weed, self-medicating. Self-medicating, thank you. Sounds like you all did to. Oh, I'm sorry there are kids here, I wasn't suppose to say that right? Too late!"
Lewis also berated Duncan, criticizing that he "has the nerve to stand up and say 'education is the civil rights issue of our time.'" Lewis went on to say that if Duncan "had gone to public school he would have had that lisp fixed," but followed with "I know that was ugly, wasn't it? I'm sorry."
The CTU has said in a statement on its website that the “edited” viral video featuring Lewis, is being "promoted by right-wing, anti-public education advocates.” CTU defended Lewis, saying in their statement:
“While she may never be honored with the Mark Twain Award for comedy, President Lewis’ opinions and self-deprecating humor were an attempt to lighten the mood during a long and serious discussion about the on-going campaign to blame and vilify teachers for everything wrong with public education."
Other than the edits (which still include plenty of context material) merging Lewis' two major gaffes in the half-hour speech, this video from the Education Action Group Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit advocating for education reform, clearly shows Lewis's cruel and negligent remarks:
Local ABC 7 in Chicago reports that according to the union, Lewis has since spoken with Duncan and says "she learned that she should never let frustrations get in the way of carry out her responsibilities as a leader."
NBC Chicago writes that Lewis's comment about the lisp was not meant to make fun of the speech defect, but to criticize the lack of resources at private schools, like the University of Chicago Lab School which Duncan attended. Prior to accepting the position of Secretary of Education, Duncan was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
Terry Katsulis, who taught and was a principal in Chicago Public Schools for 42 years, told ABC 7 that "It was completely inappropriate for the president of a union with over 30,000 teachers to speak something like that."
The Wall Street Journal reports that public school teachers unions have expressed widespread unhappiness towards President Barack Obama's education policies which have embraced charter schools and been supportive of dismissal of ineffective teachers in low-performing districts. The National Education Association, the nation's largest union, has been particularly hostile to the administration's Race to the Top initiative that awards grants to states that embraced education overhauls such as linking teacher evaluations to student test scores.