On Monday, Chicago’s public school students won’t have any classes to go to.
After weeks of negotiations, the city and the Chicago Teacher’s Union failed to agree on a contract. On Sunday night, CTU officially announced it was going to strike for the first time in a quarter century. So on Monday, instead of teaching, the union’s 26,000 educators will protest.
“In the morning, no CTU members will be inside our schools,” CTU President Karen Lewis said Sunday at a late-night press conference outdoors, surrounded by throngs of reporters and teachers. She appeared in a bright red jacket with crimson lipstick, the intensity of her wardrobe illustrating the defiance in her words. “We will walk the picket lines, we will talk to parents, we … will demand a fair contract today, we demand a fair contract now,” she said, calling the ordeal an “education justice fight.”
But when it comes to exactly what the strike it about, the stories of the city and the union vary dramatically. Shortly after Lewis finished saying that the union was striking over contract negotiations, teacher evaluations, lack of proper air conditioning, and broader pedagogical issues — such as class size and out-of-class services for poor kids — Emanuel addressed the press.
“This is totally unnecessary, this is avoidable, and our kids do not deserve this,” he said.
The mayor, who fashions himself an education reformer, wore no tie. While Emanuel usually doesn’t mince words, his anger appeared more internalized, more resolute. At moments, he appeared to be on the verge of tears. His hand shook visibly as he took a sip of water in between statements. “This is a strike of choice,” he said.
From Emanuel’s perspective, after weeks of negotiation, only two issues remain unresolved. The first is a principal’s right to choose the teachers that work in his or her school. “It’s essential that the local principal who we hold accountable for producing the educational results not be told by the CPS bureaucracy … and not be told by the union leadership who to hire,” he said.
Second, he added, is the impasse over how to implement a recent law that requires standardized tests to count for, initially, one quarter of all teacher evaluations. “I’m telling you, these were the final two issues,” he said, exasperated.
Emanuel was followed by Chicago’s police chief, who said that no police would be on administrative duty Monday. Rather, they would all be on the streets, monitoring protest activity and making sure kids weren’t just hanging out. The district has set up over 100 spaces with alternate activities to keep students safe in places like churches and nonprofits.
On Sunday, CPS officials such as School Board President David Vitale and CTU leadership — not including Lewis — holed up in a negotiation room for hours. In the tense weeks before, the Associated Press reports, the district offered CTU a 2 percent raise for four years. Incensed, the union was quick to point that a snip-happy Emanuel had nixed a 4 percent raise just the year before, and in turn, asked for a 30 percent raise over two years. According to the AP, Lewis told union officials weeks ago that CTU would accept a raise as low as 19 percent. On Sunday, according to CPS, Vitale offered a 16 percent raise over the next four years, in addition to new job opportunities for laid off teachers. CPS also offered its first-ever paid maternity leave, and the joint implementation of teacher evaluations.
But at the end of the day, CTU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, announced its official plan to strike. “People are actually surprised by how much CPS conceded. It seems like they did give in a lot,” Wendy Katten, a parent and activist who runs a group called Raise Your Hand for IL Public Ed, told The Huffington Post late Sunday. “CTU is trying to show that they have the ability to shape public education, and that they’re not going to be trampled on. It can’t just be about small specifics — to strike over air conditioner, I don’t know.”
Katten’s daughter will be missing out on fourth grade tomorrow — instead of school, she’ll be going to “strike camp,” a day of activities organized by a local church where parent volunteers will watch children with two working parents. “Some delegates think it’s a beautiful thing to strike, but you know what? It’s not beautiful, it’s a last resort,” said Katten, who generally supports the union.
The move is an act of defiance against education reform groups whose policies have angered the union — last year, the state legislature, led by the national advocacy group Stand for Children, passed a law that mandated specific teacher evaluations that count students’ standardized test scores for 25 percent initially, and that specifically required that CTU have 75 percent of its membership agree to any strike. Months later, the group’s leader Jonah Edelman was
caught on tape boasting about how he outsmarted the unions in negotiating the bill.
Emanuel campaigned on the promise of making Chicago’s schools better, promising — and later, trying to enact — policies in line with a nationwide, Obama-supported movement known as education reform. Emanuel wanted principals to have more autonomy over hiring; he wanted teachers to be evaluated more stringently; he wanted to encourage the growth of charter schools; but, above all, he wanted Chicago to have a longer school day. So he trotted out research and Stand’s talking points showing that Chicago’s schools have the shortest days in the nation, and sought to implement the teacher-evaluation law — which contained a special provision that allowed him to lengthen the school day.
But when trying to negotiate the specifics of that extension with the union, trouble arose. Emanuel tried to circumvent the union by asking individual schools’ teachers to vote to waive the contract and make the school day longer, but stopped once CTU took complaints about the process to the the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. While Emanuel sought to add school hours, the city also couldn’t afford to pay an amount the union sought for the extra time required of teachers. But a deal reached in late July gave both sides what they wanted: students would see a 20 percent longer school day — seven hours for elementary students and 7.5 hours for high schoolers — and current teacher hours would largely be unaffected. To fill the gaps, CPS planned to hire back 477 tenured teachers who were laid off over the last three years, at an annual cost of $40-$50 million. It was just one of many flashpoints Emanuel, a Democrat, had with the union.
In her remarks Sunday night, Lewis said the union and the city would continue negotiating Monday, but no firm plans had been set. Then, during his press conference, Emanuel said his team was ready to negotiate “starting now.” CTU emailed reporters saying Lewis had texted CPS asking to go back to the drawing board that night; CPS officials said that text never came.
Beyond the claims that are legal for CTU to strike against, CTU’s complaints echo the broader ones of teachers’ unions across America: standardized tests are over-emphasized; class sizes are ballooning; teacher evaluations that use standardized tests “cheapen” schools. Lewis said that the evaluation system required so much administrative work that even the principals, usually not union bedfellows, were calling CTU, asking for help. “When principals are calling Chicago Teachers Union, you know there’s something wrong with this plan,” Lewis said. “Class size matters, it matters to parents,” she added.
Teachers have reported having as many as 42 students in one classroom, but Emanuel said that rules surrounding class size were not being negotiated, and that if classes are too large, schools have recourse to change that. “Class size isn’t the issue,” he said.
The strike coincides with the first day of a cross-country bus tour U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will take to discuss education. Duncan gained his education credentials leading the district, so the issue might come up on the trail this week.
“We’re all very nervous about the outcome,” Xian Barrett, a Chicago high school law and history teacher, told HuffPost Sunday. “But I’m also hopeful that we’re finally taking a stand on issues that have more to do with educating children than salary or benefits. It’s about who has the right to determine how children are educated in the community.”
Some parents were dismayed. “I am up and have to explain to my daughter in the morning why she can’t go to school,” tweeted Karen Travis, a parent who was traveling and was unable to speak by phone. “We won’t be a CPS family after this year. The education is horrific, and I will pay for private school in the future,” she added.
“This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could have avoided,” she said. “We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve.”
More than 26,000 teachers and support staff are expected to hit the picket lines Monday morning, while the school district and parents carry out plans for keeping nearly 400,000 students safe and occupied during the day in the nation’s third largest school district.
School board President David Vitale announced a short time earlier Sunday night that the talks had broken off, despite the school board offering what he called a fair and responsible contract that would cover four years and meet most of the union’s demands. He said the talks with the union had been “extraordinarily difficult.”
Lewis said she believed talks would resume Monday but a time had not been set for the sides to meet. She added that progress had been made but not enough to avert a strike.
Union officials said among the outstanding issues were district proposals for standardized student testing that would “cheapen” the school system and a teacher evaluation system that would cost 6,000 teachers their jobs within two years. Lewis said the union had won concessions from the district on other matters.
The walkout was announced after months of tense, at-times heated talks between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the school board and union leaders at a time when unions and collective bargaining have come under criticism around the nation during difficult economic times.
The district had been offering a raise of 2 percent a year for four years. The union called that offer unacceptable – particularly after Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise, citing budget problems.
The union countered by asking for a 30 percent pay raise over two years, followed by a request for a 25 percent increase over two years. Just weeks ago, Lewis told delegates the union had adjusted its demand and was asking for a 19 percent pay raise in the contract’s first year.
The union also has raised concerns about raises based on teacher experience and education. It said the district agreed to retain contract language allowing raises based on experience, called step increases, but would not actually pay the money now.
Teachers also have been concerned about new teacher evaluations, health benefits and regaining lost jobs. An additional issue was how a longer school day for students is being implemented.
The strike is the latest flashpoint in a very public and often contentious battle between the mayor and the union.
When he took office last year, the former White House chief of staff inherited a school district facing a $700 million budget shortfall. Not long after, his administration rescinded 4 percent raises for teachers. He then asked the union to reopen its contract and accept 2 percent pay raises in exchange for lengthening the school day for students by 90 minutes. The union refused.
The longer school day was one of the mayor’s campaign promises for the city’s schools, and he pushed to have it implemented a year ahead of schedule. He attempted to go around the union by asking teachers at individual schools to waive the contract and add 90 minutes to the day. He halted the effort after being challenged by the union before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
The district and union agreed in July on how to implement the longer school day, striking a deal to hire back 477 teachers who had been laid off rather than pay regular teachers more to work longer hours. That raised hopes the contract dispute would be settled soon, but bargaining continued on the other issues.