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Illness Could Derail Teacher Challenge To Rahm Emanuel

A prospective challenge by Chicago’s teachers union to Mayor Rahm Emanuel may have ended before it began.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has announced that president Karen Lewis is suffering from an unspecified “serious illness.” Lewis is for the time being stepping aside as CTU president in favor of vice president Jesse Sharkey.

Lewis was hospitalized on Sunday and underwent surgery during the week, but until Thursday no information had been divulged on how serious the situation was.

Lewis had formed an exploratory committee and was raising funds for a potential mayoral campaign against incumbent Rahm Emanuel. If her illness is severe enough, however, it may prevent her from being able to enter the race by the November 24 filing deadline.

The challenge, if it had materialized, appeared to have a strong shot. Emanuel’s approval ratings have sagged to the mid-30s, and an August poll by the Chicago Tribune found that in a hypothetical primary match-up, Lewis led Emanuel 43 percent to 39 percent. Other candidates may choose to mount a challenge, but Lewis’s has been seen as the most promising by far.

For the time being, Lewis’s exploratory committee says it will continue its efforts until a final decision is made.

“We haven’t been told to stop doing what we are doing, so we are moving forward,” committee head Jhatayn Travis told the Chicago Tribune.

Should Lewis end up running, it would set up one of the largest clashes yet in the internal Democratic battle on education. Emanuel, once chief of staff to President Obama, has badly alienated the CTU over his three and a half years in power by pursuing an aggressive centrist reform agenda in an effort to fix Chicago’s low-performing schools.

Emanuel incensed the union by opening dozens of charter schools in the city, and by attempting to renegotiate union contracts to cut teacher seniority raises, reduce the reach of tenure protections, and introduce more direct accountability for student performance.

Friction between Emanuel and the CTU boiled over in 2012, when a breakdown in contract negotiations caused the CTU to launch a weeklong strike that drew national attention. Less than a year later, the city announced the closure of almost 50 schools in one fell swoop, the largest school closure in U.S. history.

Thousands of education employees have been also  been laid off in a series of annual reductions. The closures and layoffs are widely perceived by the union as a form of revenge on the CTU.

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