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Q&A: What's behind the Chicago teachers' strike?

Story highlights

  • Length of school day, evaluations, compensation among major issues
  • The Chicago Teachers Union represents 26,000 teachers
  • Chicago public school teachers are some of the best paid in the nation

The Chicago teachers strike drags into a second week, after a representative group of the Chicago Teachers Union decided over the weekend not to end the walkout even though union leaders and school officials had reached a tentative contract deal.

The strike in the third-largest school system in the country is affecting more than 350,000 children.

A quick primer:

Q. What's the sticking point?

A. Among the major issues, the teachers are negotiating over the length of the school day, objecting to their evaluations being tied to performance and fretting about potential job losses.

Q. How would the length of school days change?

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    A. Elementary students would gain 75 minutes to create a seven-hour school day. High school students would gain 30 minutes to create a seven-and-a-half-hour school day. Teachers wants additional money to teach the additional hours.

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    Q. Why are teachers objecting to evaluations tied to performance?

    A. The union says student performance is directly linked to conditions in the home or neighborhood, making it unfair for teachers to be punished if students don't do well in the the classroom for those reasons.

    Q. How many jobs will be lost under the evaluation plan?

    A. As many as 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs under the evaluation system, according to CTU President Karen Lewis, who has called the system "unacceptable." The mayor's office, the city and school officials have questioned that job-loss figure.

    Q. How many school closings are being talked about?

    A. The teachers union says 200 schools will be closed, but Marielle Sainvilus, a spokeswoman for Chicago Public Schools, calls the claim "false," asserting that union leaders said recently that 100 schools would close. "I'm sure it'll be another number tomorrow," she said.

    Q. What is the status of the strike?

    A. The Chicago Teachers Union will make no decision Monday. They are taking the day off for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is vowing to go to court to force teachers back to work, calling Sunday's actions by the union "a delay of choice that is wrong for our children." He announced in a statement that he's asked city lawyers to file an injunction in circuit court to "immediately end this strike."

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    Q. What's next?

    A. The House of Delegates, a group of 800 union representatives, will reconvene Tuesday afternoon, at which point delegates could decide to end the strike. If they do, classes would resume no earlier than Wednesday. The rank-and-file of the Chicago Teachers Union would still have the opportunity at some point to accept, or reject, the proposed contract.

    But as of Sunday, Lewis said a "clear majority" of union delegates did not want to suspend the strike given the proposed contract, saying "they are not happy with the agreement."

    Q. How many teachers are in the union and how much do Chicago teachers make?

    A. The Chicago Teachers Union represents 26,000 teachers. Chicago has the nation's third-largest school system with some 35,000 students, and its teachers are among the highest paid in the country. The median base salary for teachers in the Chicago public schools in 2011 was $67,974, according to the system's annual financial report.

    Q. What sort of raise are they being offered?

    A. The pay structure would change with a 3% pay hike for the first year of the contract, 2% for the second year and 2% for the third year. If a trigger extends the contract to four years, teachers would get a 3% pay increase. Union members would no longer be compensated for unused personal days, health insurance contribution rates will be frozen and the "enhanced pension program" is being eliminated.

    Q. How is the public reacting to the strike?

    A. The reaction is predictably mixed in the pro-union town. Parents have had to juggle work schedules and lay out money for child care, but many remain supportive of the union's action.

    Q. What do the presidential candidates have to say?

    A. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is President Barack Obama's former chief of staff, but the White House has had little to say about the strike. Unions are a major support base for the Democratic Party.

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has tried to make political hay, saying, "I am disappointed by the decision of the Chicago Teachers Union to turn its back on not only a city negotiating in good faith but also the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city's public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education."

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