CPS strike update: Why are Chicago teachers still out? Classes out 9 days as Trump arrives

Erin Richards and Grace Hauck, USA TODAY

CHICAGO — Negotiators have met for 22 straight days. Students have missed eight days of school and counting. And still the Chicago teachers' strike presses on.

Public school teachers and city officials started the week at loggerheads over money for classrooms, as families in the nation's third-largest city again had to find options for around 350,000 kids who are still missing class. Bargaining went into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, but negotiators again went home without a deal.

The main issue: The Chicago Teachers Union says it can eke out more concessions from the city, especially related to teachers' prep time. City officials say they've made plenty of concessions and can't flex the budget anymore.

One bright spot: The city has reached a tentative agreement with the union representing 7,500 school support staff, who have been striking alongside some 25,000 CPS teachers. But that won't restart classes.

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What's the hangup between the city and the teachers' union?

A strike lasting eight school days — headed to nine on Tuesday — is long even by recent standards, as teacher walkouts have gained momentum around the country. (A strike in January in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district, lasted six school days.) It's reportedly the longest teacher strike Chicago has seen since 1987, when teachers demonstrated for 19 days.

Educators, students, and union laborers rally at Union Park during the Chicago Teachers Union strike Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, in Chicago.

The major hangup in Chicago: City officials say they've offered the union more money — at least $500 million more than what's being spent now, by the time the contract would reach its fifth year. That would go toward reducing class sizes and teacher raises. City officials also say in 22 straight days of negotiations, they put many of the union's other requests into the contract language — a major talking point for the union before the strike.

But the union says the offer doesn't go far enough to address the deep needs of Chicago Public Schools children. 

"We are enormously disappointed that CTU simply cannot take yes for an answer," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a news conference Sunday night.

In a tweet Sunday night, CPS said the offer includes $110 million to provide a nurse and social worker in every school. The district said it also has offered $25 million to lower class sizes. City officials say they have offered to prioritize lowering class sizes in the most high-poverty schools.

The union, however, says the class size remedy only addresses one-third of Chicago's public schools. 

Union officials also want elementary teachers to have a 30-minute period in the morning for collaborative preparation time. They say that's a huge sticking point in the current negotiations.

"The district continues to refuse to restore morning preps," the Chicago Teachers Union posted on its Facebook page Monday.

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How might the strike end?

City officials say there's a cost associated with that prep time — for example, they'd have to pay teachers for a longer school day if they didn't want to cut out instructional time. And if the prep time is the top priority, the union has to accept less money for some of its other requests.

But teachers could agree to less of a salary increase in exchange for the collaborative prep time.

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Despite the back-and-forth over continuing to cancel class, negotiations are "toward the end," said Katie Osgood, a member of the union’s bargaining team.

"We have come a long way, in terms of where we were. Before we went on strike, we were told: ‘There’s no way you’ll ever get class size, staffing for social workers, nurses, special education case managers,'" Osgood said. "Now, we’re actually talking about what those improvements will look like. ... We’re just a small amount of money away."

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What about Trump's visit to Chicago?

A flurry of protests broke out across the city Monday. Dozens of teachers started the day on the picket lines and traveled to an afternoon rally across from Chicago's Trump Tower, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered to protest President Donald Trump's visit.

President Donald Trump speaks at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Convention Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Chicago.

Dennis Kass, a high school sociology teacher in Little Village on the city's West Side, said many Trump administration policies have negatively impacted his students, who are predominantly immigrants. Kass said he was eager to return to his classroom as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, dozens of students flooded City Hall in support of striking teachers, holding signs and chanting: "Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!"

Why can't Chicago spend more on its schools? Is the district broke?

The teachers' union is insisting on more money for schools in part because a recent change in the state's funding formula brought an additional $1 billion or so to Chicago's schools.

But city and district leaders say most of that money has gone toward stabilizing teacher pensions and paying for universal pre-kindergarten and other academic programs.

In a recent opinion piece in the Chicago Sun-Times, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said that the district is still recovering from being on the brink of insolvency two years ago. She said the district's overall budget is $7.7 billion and it's borrowing another $1.5 billion to stay afloat.

Union leaders say the city can absolutely afford the remaining concessions they want. Lightfoot has found the money to fund other projects around the city, they say.

It should only cost CPS another $38 million to meet the union's requests, union President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement Monday. The city has "misplaced priorities," he said.

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How have other school districts managed to end a strike?

This strike differs from other teacher walkouts around the country in part because of Lightfoot's insistence on sticking with her set budget.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot reads a book to children at Breakthrough, a nonprofit that partners with those affected by poverty, on Day One of the Chicago teachers strike.

In other teacher strikes, sometimes districts agree to things they can't currently afford, then figure out how to pay for them later. For example, the Los Angeles teachers' strike was resolved in part when school officials agreed to pay for class-size reductions and said they'd figure out how to pay for it later, either by a special kind of tax or some other ballot measure to be approved by voters.

Districts also have pursued staff layoffs after a strike to balance the budget.

Those kinds of moves are irresponsible, Chicago city officials said, and the city needs to live within its means.

"Taxpayers have said loud and clear that they do not want a property tax increase," Lightfoot said Sunday night.

What else makes the Chicago strike unusual?

City officials still say the major reason the strike has dragged on is because a team of 45 rank-and-file teachers are holding up negotiations. They say the union's top leadership, which is elected, has to take each of the offers back to this team for approval before the offers can be voted on by the entire membership.

That's not the reason for the holdup, union officials say. They said the union leadership ran on a platform of more democracy, and the city has declined their offer to bargain openly so the public can see what's happening.

Union officials also say they've seen overwhelming support for the strike and for holding out for more money to pay to improve conditions in classrooms.

"We're bargaining for the public good," said union spokesperson Chris Geovanis. 

What's the contract deal for the 7,500 school staff?

School staff such as bus aides and custodians represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 73 on Sunday night announced a tentative deal with the city.

"The lowest paid support workers who are the backbone of our schools are going to see raises that mean their families won't have to struggle living in an expensive city where costs keep going up," said Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Local 73, in a statement.

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The tentative agreement, which will expire in 2023, must be approved by a majority of the membership. Members will vote Monday and Tuesday, Palmer said.

But at this point, the SEIU deal won't restart classes: SEIU workers are expected to remain on the picket lines until CTU also reaches a deal with City Hall.

Hauck reported from Chicago.

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Does CPS have school? Why Chicago teachers, CTU are still on strike