Conflict & Justice

Chicago teachers strike: Let's break it down


Teacher Jillian Connolly helps her daughter Mary study math problems while picketing on September 10, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.


Scott Olson

Teachers, parents and students woke up to a frustrating situation this morning as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) began the first day of the first district walk-out in 25 years. 

After talks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel failed last week and over 70 percent of union members voted to support a strike, 26,000 teachers, school nurses, janitors, counselors and other support staff picketed their schools, which are closed for classes today to the nearly 400,000 students in the district.

Karen Lewis, CTU President said to the Associated Press, "This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could have avoided. We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve.”

The country's third largest district, the Chicago school system has been under negotiations for months, since Emanuel, formerly chief of staff to President Obama, put his plan to fix the schools in action. Part of Emanuel's plan included pieces like a new teacher evaluation system based on standardized testing, as well as a 90-minute extension of the school day. 

After rounds and rounds of talks with the CTU, which failed on Saturday, Emanuel said to reporters, “This is not a strike I wanted. It was a strike of choice ... it’s unnecessary, it’s avoidable and it’s wrong."

More from GlobalPost: Chicago teachers strike for first time in quarter century

This morning, parents rushed to find places to send their kids, and the district announced it would open schools where students on free meal plans could still eat lunch and breakfast. District officials "asked community organizations to provide additional programs for students, and a number of churches, libraries and other groups plan to offer day camps and other activities," according to the AP.  

"We have said from the beginning, we’re tired of being bullied, belittled and betrayed," Lewis said to the Huffington Post, but wouldn't elaborate on which issues the union was fighting for because Lewis said they're all important and she didn't want to "prioritize."

It's a long list of frustrations that have built up over time, but they've come to a head now. And it may take some real haggling, as no one knows where the money to implement the union's ideas will come from in a district that's over $700 million in debt with a $5.2 billion budget. Union supporters say no more money can be cut, and they won't accept lower wages. Meanwhile, the Emanuel administration knows it has to make serious changes to a school system that is hemorrhaging money, but can't afford to hold the students it already has. 

"That same budget does not have enough money in it provide textbooks, materials and equipment for every student, in every classroom, in every school in the Chicago Public School system," wrote activist and writer Don Washington in an editorial on his blog last week. "That budget, the present, existing budget does not have the fiscal capacity to heat, cool, clean or keep the ceilings from collapsing on the heads of children in every building, for every school and in every classroom, washroom or office in the Chicago Public School system. That’s right; the present budget is too small to meet those needs."

More from GlobalPost: Teachers and students strike in Spain over spending cuts

Here are the reasons Chicago's teachers walked out today:

Classroom issues

Emanuel's proposed teacher evaluations, which would be based more heavily on testing than before has the teachers riled. Lewis said to the AP that the new evaluations "would be based too heavily on students’ standardized test scores," which would be "unfair to teachers because it could not adequately account for outside factors that affect student performance, including poverty, violence and homelessness."

Chicago has lately been rocked by gun violence and, according to Reuters, "only about 60 percent of high school students in Chicago graduate, compared with a national average of 75 percent" while "more than 80 percent of the 402,000 students in Chicago public schools qualify for free lunches because they are from low-income families."

CTU wants to cap class size at 30 students, and the current contract caps the number at 31, Time magazine reports. However, some classes in the district are pushing upwards of 40 students and classes are held in buildings without air conditioning. Emanuel's recent announcement of closing 100 Chicago schools hasn't alleviated concerns of overcrowding, and he maintains that class size is not up for negotiation, according to the Huffington Post's Education section

Raises, payment and recalls:

Longer school days were agreed on in March, and will last a 7-and-a-half-hour day, up from a 5-hour, 45-minute day. With the longer school days already agreed and implemented, the CTU wants teachers to be compensated for the extra hours of work, or hire laid-off staff back to teach. In July, the district announced it would hire 477 teachers, "in noncore subjects such as music, art, foreign language and physical education." Most of these teachers will come from a pool of laid-off teachers, a CTU idea that would help former teachers find new work. 

However, CTU wants the idea of the recruitment pool to recall laid-off teachers to be implemented district-wide. Negotiations over how this could be handled are still on the table as of this morning. 

The union is also still pushing for raises based on experience and the pursuit of graduate degrees, while the district would like to replace them with a system based on merit pay (which would be based on the new evaluation system). Emanuel is offering a 2 percent pay increase annually over the next four years, while the union wants substantially more, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, Time reports the district says it suggested a "16% increase over four years." However, "the teachers themselves wanted to keep the former system of granting raises based on experience. The average salary for a Chicago public school teacher is $76,000, according to the district."