Karen Lewis: The 2012 Education Person of the Year

If 2011 was the “year of school choice,” then 2012 was the “year of the resurgent teachers union.” And leading the comeback was Chicago’s Karen Lewis—fiery, forceful, and unabashedly oppositional. Call her the Anti-Education-Reform Idol.

Lewis dominated the education news in 2012. First there were the skirmishes over an extended day in the Second City (resulting in a longer day for the students, not the teachers). A lengthy run-up to the strike ensued, followed by the strike itself—which, as others have noted, surprised many of us by being a public relations success for the union and a galvanizing event for teachers nationwide.

Lewis ended the year with in-your-face comments about the Newtown tragedy and a fresh lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the shuttering of Chicago schools.

While Lewis appears to be able to challenge Randi Weingarten as leader of the AFT anytime soon, she is giving voice to many educators who feel frustrated by Weingarten’s reform-y talk and rhetorical concessions. We should expect a more strident unionism, especially in the cities, in the years to come.

This creates challenges and opportunities for reformers. The key will be seeing, with eyes wide open, what we’re up against (an interest group that is built to protect its members) while working hard not to demonize its members—the vast majority of whom are America’s heroes. Are we up to the task? I think so.

Bring on 2013!

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute”s Flypaper blog.

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