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Karen Lewis: Fiery Chicago Teachers Union chief takes on wrath of Rahm (+video)

An Ivy League union organizer with deep ties to Chicago's community activists, Karen Lewis is emerging as the new face of resistance to a national education reform movement. She's a match for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's storied temper, backers say.

Chicago Teachers Union chief Karen Lewis speaks to suporters at Labor Day rally.
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Karen Lewis speaks to roaring crowds with a preacher’s cadence and the righteous wave of a pointed finger.

For parents and teachers fed up with the pressures of high-stakes standardized tests – and the literal heat of unairconditioned classrooms – the Chicago Teachers Union president is a superhero.

With the strike in the nation’s third-largest school district entering its fifth day Friday, the outspoken Chicago native and veteran high school chemistry teacher has emerged as the face of the fight for what she calls the “soul of public education.” 

News reports suggest that the two sides might be nearing a breakthrough after negotiations ended at 1 a.m. Friday. The union called a meeting of delegates for Friday afternoon, and though the purpose was not made clear, these delegates would be required to approve any settlement. Ms. Lewis told reporters she hoped students would be back in school Monday.

The biggest hurdles remaining appear to be resistance to a teacher-evaluation system and a demand that laid-off teachers be the first ones rehired.

Beyond the specific issues on the negotiating table in Chicago, though, the strike has drawn national attention because of a growing backlash over education reforms, ranging from teacher evaluations and layoff policies to the role of nonunionized, public charter schools. Much like the Wisconsin demonstrations last year, it taps into a broader political fight over unions during tight-budget times. But unlike Wisconsin, the issues in this fight also divide Democrats. 

"The fight is not about Karen Lewis," she told cheering supports at a Labor Day rally in the runup to the strike. "Let's be clear: This fight is about the very soul of public education – not only in Chicago but everywhere."

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