Thousands of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers began striking Monday for the first time in 25 years after ongoing contract negotiations between the union and the school district yielded no deal.
Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis told reporters at a late Sunday night press conference outside of the Merchandise Mart that until there is a favorable contract between the union and CPS, teachers, “will be on the picket line.”
Teachers, paraprofessionals, school nurses and other clinicians are part of the strike. The school district’s charter schools are not impacted. CPS employs over 21,000 teachers who serve the district’s 402,000 students at 585 schools.
“We do not intend to sign an agreement until all the matters of our contract are addressed,” said Lewis. “It’s a package deal.”
Some of the major issues surrounding the strike are teacher recall, teacher evaluation which is tied to student performance on standardized tests, and a decreased number of school nurses and psychologists. Lewis also mentioned other conditions like the lack of air conditioning. She said that other factors, including violence and poverty – which teachers have no control over – affect student achievement and teachers should not be held accountable for that. The union estimates that 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs as a result of such evaluations.
The union said pay raises were important but not the deal breaker. In fact, union and school board officials said they are closer to an agreement on compensation than any other issue on the table. The district offered a 16 percent raise over four years.
“That’s not really the main issue that divides us,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey.
With an average annual salary of $75,000, according to CPS data, Chicago teachers are among the highest-paid in the nation. Chicago has the third largest public school district in the country.
A Taft High School special education teacher assistant who didn’t want to provide her name said Sunday after the press conference that she and thousands of other union members stand in solidarity.
“Whatever our leader said, that’s it. It’s over, we’ll be on line,” she said.
That solidarity was visible Monday in the multitude of CTU members and supporters who converged on the streets near CPS headquarters, taking their picketing and protest to the front door of the school district.
Some teachers support the principles of the matter, though they prefer not to walk out of the classroom.
“I really don’t want to go on strike but this is necessary,” Betty Burt, a fourth grade teacher at William K. New Sullivan Elementary School on the Southeast Side, told the Chicago Citizen. “We’re doing this for the children, for the betterment of the children.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the teachers strike “avoidable” and added that one of the main contract sticking points – teacher evaluations – has included teacher input.
“In the last year, the evaluation is designed by our teachers, for our teachers and will be revised by our teachers. It respects their understanding of their profession and what it takes to improve the quality of the teachers that are helping our children learn,” said Emanuel.
The political wrangling did little for parents like Chatham resident Sandra Edwards who has three children in CPS and hoped that teachers did not strike. With no options for care for her son who is in third grade and a desire to not see her twins have their last year in high school interrupted, Edwards said the strike would have a far reaching impact.
“I’m for the teachers. I truly believe the teachers deserve what they are getting,” said Edwards, whose twins attend Dunbar Career Academy High School and a third grader goes to Burnside Elementary Scholastic Academy. “I’m just hoping they come to an agreement real soon. It saddens my heart that they come to this conclusion.”
Many community organizations have partnered with CPS to provide care for students during the strike. Several public schools will be open for half-days during the strike, manned by non-union staff, to provide activities and a meal for students. Several churches, civic and community centers opened their doors as well. As they welcomed students to take part in their respective programs, some leaders also spoke out about the strike.
“It is our hope that this strike is short-lived and that all sides can resolve the issues that divide them and have resulted in a halt in the education of our next generation,” said Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp, who is also a school board member.
The teachers strike is among a list of political flare ups for the mayor. He responded to questions about it being a further embarrassment for him.
“Don’t take it out on the kids of the city of Chicago if you got a problem with me,” he said.
By Rhonda Gillespie