Politics & Policy

Race-Baiting for Fun and Profit

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Karen Lewis promised never to outearn her Chicago Teachers Union members — but today, she makes more than them, and also many of the “rich white people” she decries.

As Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis considers a run for mayor, it’s worth examining a major campaign promise she has already broken.

As the Sun-Times recently noted, in June 2010, when Lewis was campaigning for the top post of the Chicago Teachers Union, she slammed two-time incumbent Marilyn Stewart for her $295,000-a-year compensation, earned between her CTU presidency and her treasurer post at the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

“How can you criticize [Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron] Huberman for making $230,000 a year during these hard times if you’re making so much more than your members?” Lewis said, vowing to keep her salary below that of the highest-paid Chicago teacher.

Four years later: “Chicago Public Schools’ payroll records show no teacher makes as much as Lewis’ $136,890 CTU base salary,” the Sun-Times reports.

Lewis also made $18,687 in 2013 in other compensation from the Chicago Teachers Union and its related organizations, according to IRS filings. And as an executive vice president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Lewis brought in a total of $80,196 in salary and benefits in 2013.

In total, Lewis made more than $201,000 in salary alone last year — excluding benefits. In other words, she’s not in the company of her fellow educators; she’s an economic peer to the top 5 percent of Americans.

In fact, Chicago Public Schools — the third largest district in the United States, encompassing more than 600 individual schools — employs only three workers who draw a higher annual salary than Lewis, and none of them are teachers: Only the CEO, chief administrative officer, and chief talent officer outearn her. The highest-paid teacher in Chicago Public Schools, a military instructor at Gurdon S. Hubbard High School, makes $124,520 a year in salary. 

According to the Sun-Times, Lewis has an interesting explanation for this discrepancy:

Lewis says she didn’t break her promise not to make more as union president than Chicago’s highest-paid teacher makes, saying her [Chicago Teachers Union] salary is for working the full year, rather than a 39-week school year.

(Not that Lewis herself lacks good vacation options. In fact, she owns both a condo in Hawaii and a vacation home in Michigan, in addition to her Chicago condo in Kenwood — properties that together are valued at just under $1 million. That’s not even counting her time-shares in New York, Colorado, Mexico, and an additional two in Hawaii.)

Yet Lewis’s sizeable personal wealth has not deterred her from engaging in inflammatory rhetoric on economic inequality, diatribes she often interlaces with accusations of racism.

For example, speaking on pensions at the City Club in May, Lewis said:

It’s as if the 1 percent isn’t satisfied with having most of it. It seems they want it all. And they justify their behavior by determining among themselves “who is worthy” and who isn’t. . . . These influencers manage by chaos and carnage.

Last year she called for “an honest conversation about poverty and inequality that hinders the delivery of an education product in our school system,” pointing the finger at “rich white people” and “venture capitalists” who “think they know what’s in the best interest of children of African-Americans and Latinos, no matter what the parents’ income or education level.”

She continued:

If you look at the majority of the tax base for property taxes in Chicago, they’re mostly white, who don’t have a real interest in paying for the education of poor black and brown children. We don’t want to say that out loud, but if you go in certain communities — and before I had locks, and people didn’t exactly know who I was — I heard this stuff on a regular basis, and the conversations are they don’t want to pay.

And in an interview soon after her election as union president, Lewis equated opposition to unions with opposition to democracy itself.

“The problem is that public education is the last of . . . any part of democracy in this country because rich white people have bought everything,” she said. “They bought access to politicians, . . . to government, on a level that’s unprecedented. . . . When people talk about merit, what are they talking about? They’re talking about whether I like you or not.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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