For the first time in a quarter of a century, CPS teachers are on strike.
In announcing that negotiations had failied, union leaders emphasized that compensation took a backseat as they want this contract to tackle bigger education issues, include greater protections for displaced teachers and lessen the weight that test scores have in teacher evaluations.
“This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could avoid,” said CTU President Karen Lewis. “We must do things differently in this city if we are to give our students the education they deserve.”
But CPS Board President David Vitale said the district made the union 20 different offers over the many months of negotiations and painted union leadership as unwilling to compromise. By about 8 p.m., negotiations broke down inside the CTU’s Merchandise Mart offices.
At that time, Vitale said the last best offer was on the table and he was asking to talk to speak one-on-one with Lewis. When she failed to meet with him, Vitale said he assumed the strike was inevitable and left. He emerged at about 9:40 p.m.
Vitale was noticeably frustrated. “It is clearly their decision, we have done everything we can.”
Offering up anything more would “hurt the education agenda that we think is good for our children,” Vitale said.
Later, Lewis said she was on the phone and didn’t know he was waiting to speak with her. At 11 p.m., after the strike was officially announced, Lewis sent a text to Vitale saying she was still in her office. “Come on down,” the text reportedly said.
But both sides were done for the night.
Lewis spoke in broad terms about the union’s demands, but did not offer specifics. To the major issues of evaluation, job security and pay, Lewis added a laundry list of demands, such as a timetable for air conditioning in every school and smaller caseloads for the district’s social workers.
With more than 300 schools under-utilized and plans to open new ones, it is widely predicted that CPS will close dozens of schools, if not more, over the next few years. This means that hundreds of teachers are likely to be displaced.
As part of the CTU-CPS interim longer agreement, in which the district promised to hire 477 more teachers to help implement the longer school day, principals were required to give a displaced teacher the position if three of them applied for a spot. CTU would like to see a similar system set up for future displaced teachers.
But CPS wants to make sure that principals keep their autonomy to hire the teachers they want. CPS is offering to give teachers of closed schools jobs in the receiving schools, if a position they are qualified for is available. Other displaced teachers could take a severance pay of three months. They could also choose to be in the displaced pool for five months where they would be given an interview for any job they applied to and an explanation if they are not hired.
A major trend in education reform across the country is to partly tie teacher evaluation to student performance on standardized tests. Like many states, Illinois adopted a new teacher evaluation system in order to be considered for federal Race to the Top grants.
Though state law requires some link between test scores and evaluation, the union wants to see test scores minimized. Lewis said as many as 6,000 teachers could be fired over the next two years because of poor ratings on the new evaluation system. And test scores, she said, are not a good indication of the quality of a teacher.
“There are too many factors beyond our control which will impact how our students perform on those tests,” she said. “Evaluate us on what we do, not the lives of our children, which we do not control.”
CPS offered to let CTU help implement the new teacher evaluation system and to make "adjustments as needed.”
Vitale said the district’s last best salary offer was three percent in the first year of the contract and two percent for each year after. CPS wants a four-year contract, but CTU wants a shorter contract. CPS also has backed away from merit pay.
In addition, CPS is now willing to give teachers’ raises for experience and education, called Step and Lane increases. CPS had tried to eliminate Steps and Lanes in this contract. However, the structure of these raises will be different and not as costly to CPS.
Vitale said this salary package will cost the district $400 million over four years.
The district also backed away from asking all employees to pay more for health insurance. Premiums would stay the same for couples and single people, but families would pay about $20 more. CTU does not want to see health care costs increase for anyone.
CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said that while the union is not completely happy with the board’s salary offer, it is not a major sticking point. “If we resolve the education issues, we think the salary will follow,” he said.